Health

Pennsylvania legislature seeks to declare state constitution provides no right to an abortion

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

Republicans in the upper chamber successfully moved to add abortion language to the package Thursday as lawmakers worked to pass an already late budget.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — Voters could be asked as early as the spring to weigh in on five significant amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution, including one that would require voters to show ID every time they vote and another that asserts the state’s charter does not protect abortion access.

After a contentious late-night debate that spilled into Friday morning, the state Senate voted 28-22 to pass the omnibus resolution. One Democrat, state Sen. Lisa Boscola of Northampton County, backed the measure. Two Republicans — Sens. Lisa Baker, of Luzerne County, and Dan Laughlin, of Erie County — voted against it.

Republicans in the upper chamber successfully moved to add abortion language to the package Thursday as lawmakers worked to pass an already late budget.

The state House followed around 10 p.m. Friday, in a 107-92 vote, after several hours of debate. Lawmakers faced the shouts of abortion access protesters as they entered the chamber.

The five proposed amendments could be sent to the Pennsylvania voters as soon as spring 2023. They would:

  • Declare the state constitution does not grant any right relating to abortion, including no right to public funding for the procedure.

  • Require government-issued ID to vote.

  • Require the auditor general to audit elections.

  • Allow each major party’s gubernatorial nominee to choose their own running mate, rather than holding a separate primary for lieutenant governor.

  • Expand the General Assembly’s power to reject regulations.

The votes continue efforts by legislative Republicans to use constitutional amendments to advance their policy goals, such as restricting access to abortion and tightening election laws, without the consent of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has regularly used his veto pen.

Proposed amendments to the constitution must pass the state House and Senate twice, in two consecutive sessions. Both chambers need to pass the measure again during the 2023-24 session in order to send the proposed amendments to the voters.

Each proposed amendment would appear on the ballot individually.

Republicans argued that the proposals would empower voters, citing polling in favor of stricter voter ID laws and against public funding for abortion.

The latter is a top priority for Republicans, who are concerned that the state Supreme Court, in a case brought by eight abortion providers, may order the state’s Medicaid program to cover the procedure.

Republican lawmakers insisted Friday that the proposed abortion amendment would not ban the procedure or change current state law. But legal experts, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, believe it would lay the groundwork for additional restrictions or an outright ban by removing a legal foundation to challenge such laws in state courts.

Moving forward, state lawmakers and judges will play a key role in deciding abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe. v. Wade, doing away with the constitutional guarantee to the procedure and handing the authority to set abortion laws to each state.

>> READ MORE: A complete guide and amendment tracker for proposed changes to Pennsylvania’s Constitution

GOP lawmakers said sending questions about abortion and election administration to the voters puts the power in the hands of Pennsylvanians.

“The people of Pennsylvania should have a say in issues they feel strongly about,” state Sen. Judy Ward (R., Blair) said during the floor debate Friday morning.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), the GOP gubernatorial nominee, added “If we’re wrong on this here, and the vote will be no, then we’ll stick with the system that we have now — that I don’t necessarily like — but the people, we have to choose.”

Democrats countered that Republicans are only willing to send their priorities to the voters, not ones embraced by the minority party. Democratic senators attempted to add several amendments — including an assault weapons ban, a right to privacy, campaign finance limits, and the elimination of property taxes — late Thursday but were blocked from doing so by Republicans.

State House Republicans similarly blocked Democratic amendments on Friday.

“That’s what I find so, so offensive,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), “that we’re going to stand up and say that we think people in Pennsylvania can make decisions, but only about the things that are important to us, not about the things that are important to you Democrats.”

More than a dozen people showed up Friday to make their voices heard months before any potential referendum.

Leigh Chow, a 50-year-old Cumberland County resident, was among those who greeted state House lawmakers with chants of “shame” and “bans off our body” as they shuffled from committee meetings to the floor. Chow was joined by two Philadelphia City Council members and the executive director of the state’s Planned Parenthood political arm.

“When things are moving down to the state level, that’s when we need to start stepping up and making sure that we’re paying attention,” Chow said. “If they can slip something through like this at 11 o’clock last night when we’re all sleeping, obviously, that’s a sign that they don’t want to do it in the daylight.”

Proposed constitutional amendments can be sent to the voters during any election, even low turnout primaries. Since 1968, the year Pennsylvania’s current constitution went into effect, voters have rejected only six of 49 proposed amendments that reached them.

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