Pa. Gov. Wolf vetoes controversial abortion bill

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf vetoes a bill that would have made abortion illegal at 20 weeks, four weeks earlier than existing law allows. The veto ceremony took place at Philadelphia City Hall.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf vetoes a bill that would have made abortion illegal at 20 weeks, four weeks earlier than existing law allows. The veto ceremony took place at Philadelphia City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday vetoed a bill that would have narrowed the window on how long women have to get a legal abortion from six months to five months.

If it had become law, Senate Bill 3 would have been one of the strictest abortion laws in the country.

Besides banning abortion at 20 weeks or later, the bill also would have criminalized the most common procedure used in second-trimester abortions — a procedure medical professionals call “dilation and evacuation,” but which the bill terms “dismemberment abortion.” A doctor who disregarded the procedural ban and did it anyway would have faced felony charges, jail time, and fines.

SB3 was the second time in two years that the Republican-controlled Legislature tried to restrict abortion rights in Pennsylvania. A similar measure failed last year after it stalled in the Senate.

State Sen. Michele Brooks, a Republican who represents the 50th District in the state’s northwestern corner, introduced the most recent iteration, SB3, nearly a year ago.

In a December 2016 memo inviting her colleagues to co-sponsor the bill, she argued that medical advances have improved a fetus’ viability outside the womb earlier than ever before, adding that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks.

The bill did not allow exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, or those with seriously malformed fetuses.

“SB3 is a vile assault on women’s ability to make their own decisions about their own health care,” Wolf told a crowd of reporters and supporters at an afternoon veto-signing ceremony at Philadelphia City Hall. “Make no mistake about it: SB3 is an attack on women. It’s an attack on their health, their freedoms, their choice, their liberties. This legislation is a disingenuous and bald-faced attempt to pass the most extreme anti-choice legislation in the country. This legislation is an attempt to criminalize the decisions that women must be allowed to make about their own health care.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney welcomed the governor by voicing his own strong objections to the bill.

“Gov. Wolf has been a great defender of our city against the Trumpian policies that sometimes emerge from Harrisburg. And there is no legislation more out of touch with our values than the bill he’s here to veto, Senate Bill 3,” Kenney said. “The state should not be telling women, particularly women who have become pregnant by rape or incest, that they don’t have the right to decide what to do with their own body. These women are victims, and they should not be victimized again by this law.”

Deborah Melamut Minkoff, an attorney and a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Women, said she especially resented that the bill made it through the legislature without public hearings or input from medical professionals.

“SB 3 removes women’s rights to make a thoughtful decision,” Melamut Minkoff said. “SB 3 turns back the clock. SB3 eliminates a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy after 20 weeks, even though Roe v. Casey put the deadline at 24.”

She added: “The absence of an exception for rape demonstrates the thoughtlessness behind the bill as well as the heartlessness.”

One reproductive health advocate called on lawmakers to quit wasting time trying to limit women’s health care and instead work to help women flourish by improving education, housing, pay equity, childcare, and the environment.

“That’s what we want our legislators to do, and that’s where we think their focus should be,” said La’Tasha D. Mayes, founder and executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, a group dedicated to the health of black women and girls. “To lawmakers who continue to introduce legislation that restricts access to health care and that restricts abortion access, we want to say to them not only to trust women, but we say boldly and unapologetically: Trust black women.”

Michael Ciccocioppo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation lamented the veto.

“This is a sad day for women and children in Pennsylvania. With his veto of Senate Bill 3, Governor Tom Wolf is allowing the inhumane practice of dismemberment abortion to continue in the Commonwealth. No living child should have to endure being ripped limb by limb from a mother’s womb, and no mother should have to endure the emotional pain of losing a child in such a brutal manner. Governor Wolf’s distressing decision goes against the will of the vast majority of Pennsylvanians, who want to see cruel dismemberment abortions banned, once and for all.”

Despite the governor’s veto, the bill may not be entirely dead.

Lawmakers could override it — but that requires a two-thirds vote from each body.

The Senate passed the bill, 32-18, in February, while the House approved it last week by a 121-70 vote. To override it, the Senate would need 33 votes from its 50 members, while the House would need 136 of its 203 members.

Wolf has vetoed 21 bills, including SB3, during the three years he’s been in office — and none has been overridden.

Despite SB3’s comfortable passage in the legislature, the bill had plenty of critics, including the Pennsylvania Medical Society and the ACLU-PA. Groups including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have decried similar bans generally.

The bill came at a time when abortion rates are falling.

Abortions in Pennsylvania have declined steadily since 1980, when they peaked at 65,777, according to state data. In 2015, doctors performed 31,818 abortions statewide, according to state health department data. Nearly two-thirds occur in the first two months of pregnancy; less than 2 percent were done between the 20th and 24th weeks, data shows.

Meanwhile, women’s health advocates warn that reproductive rights are increasingly under attack.

The Trump administration enacted new rules in October that allow employers who cite religious or moral objections to deny insurance coverage for contraception for employees.

But Pennsylvania joined a few other states fighting the rules, and a federal judge in Philadelphia last week blocked the Trump order in a decision that applies nationally. Federal Judge Wendy Beetlestone said the new rules could potentially cause tens of thousands of Pennsylvania women “enormous and irreversible” harm.

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