Doug Mastriano doubles down on abortion restrictions during Pa. governor race

Doug Mastriano speaks at a rally

Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano speaks at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

It’s been three months since the United States Supreme Court handed down its ruling deeming that Americans no longer have a Constitutional right to abortion. But even Republicans who celebrated the decision have tried out varying approaches to the issue, as polls show the ruling could galvanize Democratic-leaning voters this fall.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a staunch foe of abortion rights, is a case in point. In the weeks after the ruling, he referred to the issue as “a distraction” that Democrats would prefer to talk about rather than matters like inflation. He also suggested that since voters decide elections, what a governor thought about the topic was of little importance.

That was a marked change from Mastriano’s previous pronouncements on the issue, which included an assertion during a Republican primary debate that abortion was “the number-one issue” and that he favored a total ban on the practice. And in recent days, he seems to have abandoned that warier approach to the issue.

At a demonstration opposed to abortion rights, Mastriano told a local TV reporter that abortion was “the single most important issue of our lifetime.” He also made the case explicit during a Thursday-night call with abortion-rights foes hosted by the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania.

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“All of our issues are important. And the pro-life issue’s the most important,” he said. “We can fulfill and achieve most of our desires in protecting life when we win on eight November.”

Mastriano repeated that abortion would be decided by the people, adding that “this is your chance to change history.” But he made clear that the stakes for abortion rights in his own election were high.

He pointed out that earlier efforts to restrict abortion — like a so-called “heartbeat bill” that would bar the procedure after 6-weeks — had been unable to surmount a veto. But if elected, he said, “I look forward to signing into law either [a] heartbeat bill or the fetal pain bill” which would also limit abortion access based on contested assertions about whether a fetus feels pain.

Mastriano also sought to argue that his Democratic rival, Josh Shapiro, was “an extreme radical [who] wants to have abortion through birth.”

Shapiro has long said that he supported the current Pennsylvania law, which permits abortion up to 24 weeks, and afterward only in cases where it poses a threat to the life or health of the mother. “My job as governor will be to protect Pennsylvania law,” he told CNN in May.

Mastriano also noted that when Shapiro was a member of the state House, he was on the losing side of votes to impose new regulations on abortion providers — legislation drafted after a Philadelphia doctor, Kermit Gosnell, was caught preforming illegal and botched abortions. Shapiro was among the Democrats who opposed the measures, after warning that the rules “will have the effect of shutting down a woman’s access to her right.” (A handful did close after the law went into effect.) Shapiro also sought to have a panel of medical experts weigh in on any proposed changes.

But the effort to portray Democrats as the abortion extremists — even as many seek only to maintain the status quo — is widespread. When national Republicans came to the Monongahela Valley to roll out their “Commitment to America” last week, few wanted to discuss the GOP agenda’s pledge to “protect the lives of unborn children.”

Democrats “used to say abortion should be rare,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters, while repeatedly declining to answer questions about whether Republicans would seek to restrict abortion rights nationwide. “Today they say abortion should be mandated, legal, all the way up until a baby’s born alive.”

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Democrats in the House continue to push the idea that we should be able to pull someone from their mother’s womb until the date of birth,” said Pennsylvania Congressman Lloyd Smucker, who hedged when asked what action Republicans might take on abortion rights at the federal level.

Fact-checkers have dismissed such characterizations of Democrats’ positions, calling them “disingenuous at best,” and noting that abortions late in a pregnancy are vanishingly rare and driven by catastrophic health concerns. But even as Republicans make anti-abortion pledges to their base, they maintain that the issue is of little interest.

“The only people that are asking about this are the press,” said western Pennsylvania Rep. Guy Reschenthaler when asked what the GOP pledge could mean in the next Congress. He said the Republican agenda was focused on issues like “economics, on public safety and fighting crime, making sure that, for example, women and only women can participate in women’s sports.”

Whether he’s right about that may become more clear November 8.

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