Welcome to the Culture Wars: PA. House Panel Approves Restrictive Abortion Ban

Posted on December 5, 2017

Originally appearing online at PennLive.com
Author: John L. Micek
Published: December 4, 2017

So this is what it looks like when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives decides that it really wants to do something.

On Monday evening, under cover of darkness and without a public hearing, the House Health Committee voted along party lines to send the full House a bill banning abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy; outlawing “dilation and evacuation,” the most common kind of second trimester procedure, and treating the physicians who aid women in their most private and anguished moments as little more than common criminals.

As an added bonus, the mean-spirited and unnecessary bill sponsored by Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford, does not allow exceptions for rape, incest, or in cases of severe fetal abnormalities.

For a couple of minutes there on Monday, it appeared that the bill might not come to a vote. Rumors swirled that Republicans were having trouble mustering the votes to send it to the floor. 

But in a building where commonsense routinely goes to die, that hope was in vain.

The most the Health Committee could muster was a pale imitation of the Senate, which also voted to approve the bill back in February without bothering to hold a hearing or even producing a single physician to testify on its behalf.

That might be because there aren’t any. The Pennsylvania Medical Society opposes the measure. 

During floor debate in February, Brooks repeatedly referred to the D&E procedure, which accounts for little more than 1 percent of all abortions performed each year, as “dismemberment abortions,” a term not recognized by the medical community.

Ultrasound examinations, sometimes performed just days after the 20th week, sometimes reveal severe abnormalities that could doom a fetus to a short and painful life if it were brought to term. Brooks’ bill would take abortion off the table as an option for women in that instance. 

“Women who consider having an abortion need to have all medically appropriate options available to them,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “[The Health] committee is advancing an extremist agenda that undermines the fundamental rights of women in the commonwealth.”

How extreme?

If it’s ever signed into law, the measure sponsored by Brooks would impose one of the strictest such laws in the country.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has promised to veto the bill. But the math in the House and Senate, where Republicans command sizable majorities, makes an override a possibility – however remote.

At midafternoon, Wolf released a withering statement, calling the bill “an attack on women.”

“Once again, Harrisburg Republicans are moving the most extreme anti-choice legislation in the country that criminalizes abortion and leaves no exceptions for victims of rape or incest,” Wolf said. “I have met with women and medical professionals and understand how devastating and dangerous this bill would be for patients … Put simply, women’s health care decisions should be left up to women and their doctors, not politicians in Harrisburg.”

The vote on Brooks’ bill comes amid a week in which Republicans are looking to settle accounts with rank-and-file members who put up difficult votes during the recently concluded debate over the 2017-18 budget.

For the culture warriors of the far right, there’s Brooks’ abortion ban and legislation that would ban the expenditure of public money on medical care and other health services for Pennsylvania’s transgender citizens.

For the fiscal conservatives, some of whom hail from central Pennsylvania, there’s a promised vote on so-called “paycheck protection” legislation aimed at curtailing the political power of Big Labor. For moderates from the Philadelphia suburbs, there’s the pantomime debate over a severance tax on natural gas drillers.

It’s a standard dance as Republicans look to push through as much legislation as they can in the scant two-and-a-half weeks remaining to them in 2017. The pace of the work – which will preface the 2018 campaign – stands in stark contrast to the usually sluggish efforts by one of the largest and most expensive General Assemblies in the country.

“They just want to take away the voices of our members,” David Filliman, executive director of Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said of the “paycheck protection” bill. “We’re just hoping they don’t have anything else up their sleeves.”

It was the debate over the long-sought shale tax that devoured most of the oxygen on Monday, delaying the health committee’s vote, as lawamkers returned to work after the Thanksgiving holiday, some still shaking off the hangover of this weekend’s Pennsylvania Society gala in Midtown Manhattan. 

It wasn’t even clear at the tail end of last week that Brooks’ bill was going to see a vote. At midweek, the Health Committee’s chief counsel told PennLive that she hadn’t been told to prepare the bill for a vote.

Then, late Friday as legislators departed for Manhattan, that changed. A meeting was quietly scheduled “at the call of the chair,” on Monday, meaning advocates and critics had to keep an ear open for an announcement of the voting session.

“There’s a reason lawmakers who support this bill don’t want to vote in the light of day — because this bill does not protect women; it puts women at risk,”  Meghan Eirkson, the director of Policy for Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said in an email. “The machinations these lawmakers employed to fast-track this bill and silence patients and medical professionals show just how far they will go to pursue an extreme political agenda to undermine women’s reproductive rights.”

Observers questioned the timing of the vote, which came hard on the heels of Democratic victories in statehouses and governor’s mansions in states such as Virginia last month. Those victories were primarily fired by female voters, tired of the sexist excesses of President Donald Trump. 

Apparently not content with alienating a key part of the electorate on Election Day last month, Pennsylvania Republicans appeared hellbent to keep that streak alive in 2018.

With Capitol Hill’s bro culture in the crosshairs, Pennsylvania Democrats were working hard to make sure the abortion-ban bill became part of the debate in the 2018 governor’s race.

Three GOP hopefuls – Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York; Allegheny County businessman Paul Mango, and state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny – all support the bill.

The three candidates “want to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides important health care services to women such as mammograms and cancer screenings. The Republican gubernatorial candidates would be absolutely disastrous for the women of Pennsylvania and they should be ashamed of their positions,” Pennsylvania Democrats said in an email blast to reporters.

Ashamed? Maybe. 

Unsurprised? Definitely not. 

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