Pennsylvania House passes bill setting new limits on abortion rights

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The Pennsylvania House joined a wave of conservative state legislatures trying to rewrite American abortion law Tuesday, passing a bill that would limit abortions to cases of medical necessity after 20 weeks of pregnancy rather than the current 24-week ceiling.

House Bill 1948 would also sharply curtail the use of a common second-trimester abortion technique known as dilation and evacuation, in which the fetus is extracted with tools, their bodies often torn apart in the process.

Under Rep. Kathy Rapp’s bill, the technique would be defined as “dismemberment abortion.” It too would only be permitted in cases where the mother is otherwise at risk of death or “substantial and irreversible” loss of major bodily functions.

The bill’s supporters have characterized it as a modest update designed to adapt Pennsylvania’s generation-old Abortion Control Act to a changed health care environment marked by great advances in neo-natal care.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions that effectively guarantee a right to abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, abortion opponents said new science has pushed that date well before 24 weeks.

“Something is changing,” prime sponsor Rapp, R-Warren County and chair of Pennsylvania’s Pro-Life Caucus, argued in kicking off Tuesday’s debate. “We know so much more about the science of life and how to save it …

“It is time to raise health and safety standards for women and their unborn babies,” she said.

But the bill’s opponents said the two steps, taken in combination, mark the biggest attack on abortion rights in Pennsylvania since the current abortion law was adopted in 1989.

“There’s no more hiding it, guys,” said Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery County.

“You’re either on the side of women, or you’re on the side of those who want to project their views on every woman in Pennsylvania … Supreme Court precedent be damned. My morality. My faith. Not yours.”

The bill’s next stop is the state Senate, where its immediate future was unclear. The Senate returns to session Wednesday, and there was some expectation that the abortion bill would at least be tested in caucus this week.

Abortion rights advocates took some solace after Tuesday’s vote, in a quick reaffirmation by Gov. Tom Wolf of his springtime pledge to veto the Rapp bill should it ever reach his desk.

Even so, the Rapp’s bill’s one-two punch reaffirmed Pennsylvania’s reputation for having a staunchly anti-abortion legislature, as 25 House Democrats joined with 107 Republicans to vote for the twin bans.

Only six other states have passed laws banning the dilation and evacuation procedure, which doctors say in many cases is the safest abortion technique for a mother after the first trimester.

In most of those states, the D&E bans are either still facing court challenges or haven’t taken effect yet.

HB 1948’s supporters, however, said they are trying to stop a barbaric practice.

“We are talking about the practice of ripping a baby from its mother’s womb limb by limb. This is a baby that is formed, and can feel pain,” said Rep. Judy Ward, R-Blair County.

“If this practice were done to animals, people would be outraged.”

Just last month, South Carolina became the 17th state to place a 20-week threshold in place.

The 20-week abortion bans are being blocked by federal or state courts in three of those states, while in one, South Dakota, the law takes effect on July 1, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health rights organization.

Twenty weeks has become such a battlefront because it is the precise point when many fetal deformities first present themselves through ultrasounds and other pre-natal examinations.

HB 1948’s opponents, repeatedly citing tales of friends, constituents and family members who chose sixth-month abortions after 20-week ultrasounds picked up fatal deformities in their unborn children, said Rapp’s bill seeks to force government into the most personal of decisions.

“It’s an abomination,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery County.

“We are talking about changing medical practice. We are talking about changing privacy standards. We are talking about changing the law of the nation without having had a single hearing. Without consulting a single medical expert.”

But they were outnumbered at every turn by members who argued just as passionately that they are trying to protect the defenseless.

“For me it comes down to this,” said Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Carlisle. “If we – simply by pushing a button to vote ‘yes’ today – if we can save the lives of innocent, unborn children who would otherwise be killed, then we must vote yes.”

Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Westmoreland County, called Rapp’s bill a chance to help right an “upside-down” society.

“It’s speaking for a life that has no advocate. No dream team of lawyers paid for by the taxpayers. No evidence presented in the baby’s defense. No due process. No appeal to a higher court … before it’s sentenced to death.”

The bill would not affect the vast majority of cases as abortion is practiced in Pennsylvania today.

According to the state Health Department, there were 1,550 dilation and evacuation abortions performed in 2014, the last year for which data is available. That represented about 4.8 percent of all abortions in Pennsylvania.

But those procedures represented more than 40 percent of all abortions completed after the fourth month of a pregnancy.

Those same Health Department records show only 328 abortions occurred after the 20th week of gestation last year, or about 1 percent of the total.

But that’s enough of an intrusion on womens’ rights that abortion rights advocates wasted no time declaring political war.

“The hypocrisy here is glaring,” said Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates. “At the same time they [legislators] are fast-tracking an abortion ban during an election year, they have bottled up a bill that would provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace in Pennsylvania.

“Their actions speak louder than words… and Pennsylvania women won’t forget it.”

Rapp’s bill would criminalize abortions that violate either restriction without one of the exceptions being present, but specifies that charges would attach only to the person performing the abortion.

The abortion front has been pretty quiet in Pennsylvania since 2012, when efforts to require women choosing abortion to first undergo an ultrasound were defeated.

In 2011, Gov. Tom Corbett did sign into a law a bill imposing stricter patient protections standards on abortion clinics across the state. That measure was driven by the indictment earlier that year of the rogue abortion provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who was eventually found guilty of killing a baby born alive at his West Philadelphia clinic after a botched abortion.