As the GOP clown car gets ready to sputter eastward for the Pennsylvania primary amid an onslaught of attacks on women’s reproductive rights, it’s a good time to remember that our state has always been, and seemingly always will be, the nerve center of the national abortion debate.
Forget Roe v. Wade for a moment. Both before and after the 1973 landmark ruling that interpreted the right to privacy protected by the Constitution to include abortion, Pennsylvania was operating on the premise that abortion was a state, not federal, issue.
In 1972, as Roe was being argued in the Supreme Court, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly passed a bill that basically outlawed the procedure.
“House Bill 800 … was a flat prohibition,” recalls state Rep. Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia), former executive director for Pennsylvania NARAL, an abortion-rights nonprofit.
Written by the late Rep. Martin Mullen, HB 800 sailed through both chambers, but then-Gov. Milton Shapp vetoed it. The House could have overridden the veto but as Josephs recalls it, Shapp sized up his opponents correctly and scheduled the proceedings for the first day of a two-day bear-hunting season. Josephs watched the hearing fall apart from the balcony of the Capitol building.
“I … remember seeing them down on the floor. I remember Mullen … wringing his hands and wimpering about unborn babies the way they do, and the guys are all packing up and leaving and he’s making his speech to their backs,” recalls Josephs. “They said, ‘Come on, Marty! We’ve got to get out of here.’”
As much as hillbillies in Harrisburg like to restrict access to abortion, it just can’t compare to firing hot metal into the heart of a large animal. HB 800 was done.
The next year, Roe followed. Contrary to popular belief, and as evident in the continual increase in state-level restrictions on abortion, Roe was not, and is not, the end-all to protecting access to the service.
“In a sense, the Roe decision was a double-edged sword for pro-choice groups,” observed the authors of Abortion Politics in American States, a 1994 textbook look at the development of abortion policies by state. “While it gave them an undeniable victory by legalizing abortions, it also lulled them into a false sense that women’s access to abortion was no longer an issue. Nowhere is this truer than in Pennsylvania, where pro-life forces interpreted Roe as the beginning of the battle over abortion, not the end.”
That perspective led to the Abortion Control Act in 1989.
The act is significant because it was the first serious challenge to Roe and introduced five key mandates: informed consent (a doctor reading specific information to the patient 24 hours before an abortion); spousal notification; parental consent; a mandatory waiting period; and a provision requiring clinics to report demographic information on women to the state.
The Philly-area chapter of Planned Parenthood challenged the act, resulting in landmark 1992 Supreme Court ruling, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey—as in pro-life Democrat Robert Casey, governor at the time. To the relief of abortion-rights advocates, the court upheld Roe; to the joy of anti-abortion activists, it also upheld all of the mandates of the Abortion Control Act except spousal notification.
Though states still can’t outlaw abortion, the Casey ruling empowered them to draft bills to make providers harder to find and services more expensive—a system that disproportionately affects poor women. It paved the way for all the cockamamie state-level laws we’ve been hearing about—and the ones we don’t.
“They took the fight to the states so not to draw big national attention,” says Dayle Steinberg, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. “And for a while, they didn’t.”
But no more. Much in the way the Susan G. Komen public-relations catastrophe awakened many Americans to the insidious reach of right-wing legislators bent on politicizing women’s access to health care, the recent ultrasound laws—covered by national papers and mocked on Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show —woke the same constituency to the coordinated anti-abortion effort executed on the state level.
Last year, a record-high number of state-level restrictions to abortion access were introduced all over country. By year’s end, 135 provisions were enacted in 36 states, an increase from the 89 enacted in 2010 and 77 in 2009, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
For Josephs, the final straw was the mandatory-ultrasound bill, which bizarrely requires that the doctor tilt the screen toward the patient’s face, watch her eyeballs and document—for the state—whether she looked at it or averted her gaze. (The bill was shelved but critics, including Josephs, believe that’s a temporary move by Mitt Romney Republicans to not “stir up [Rick] Santorum fanatics” before the primary.)
“I am introducing a repeal of the Abortion Control Act in toto. It’s time to do it,” says Josephs. “Women are mad. Women are fed up. There is no medical necessity for the Abortion Control Act whatsoever.”
“She’s making a statement and I understand her outrage,” says Steinberg. “They’re crossing the line. They’re over-reaching. The amount of time they spent debating abortion here, it’s just staggering.”
A recent analysis by a good-government nonprofit of the mandatory-ultrasound bills popping up around the country confirms that state Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren/Forest/McKean), the legislator who introduced Pennsylvania’s mandatory-ultrasound bill, is carrying water for anti-abortion lobbyists.
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