by Nathaniel Smith (originally posted on Politics; A View from West Chester, 3/14/17. Reposted with permission)

Can people of all views agree on some facts? No one looks forward to having an abortion; anyone who has had one doesn’t want to have another; and the national abortion rate declined by half between 1981 and 2014 (the last year with data) and is at its lowest since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision (NPR).

In our own state, “there was a 12% decline in the abortion rate in Pennsylvania between 2011 and 2014, from 15.1 to 13.3 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age” (Guttmacher Institute). But the proponents of setting rules for women never rest.

Since federal policies on matters of civil rights are being incrementally neutralized, the states are having to advance on their own in areas like education, policing, gun violence prevention, redrawing electoral districts, environment, energy, health care, and abortion.

Pennsylvania has been engaged in a long struggle to find out whether, with regard to social issues, it belongs in the Northeast or Southeast of the US. This is why it remains a real swing state, because it is vast and varied and very capable of contradicting itself not only from one year to the next but also from one county to the next. That’s not a bad thing; it means that all Pennsylvanians need to pay attention and every election counts. The 2016 presidential campaigns certainly paid attention to us.

Just for background: states were free to forbid contraception until the US Supreme Court ruled otherwise for married people in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, and for non-married people until Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972. Some state laws against non-married sex remained on the books (though little enforced) until after the Virginia case Martin v. Ziherl (2005).

Right now, contraception is protected by PA law: “The Commonwealth shall not interfere with the use of medically appropriate methods of contraception or the manner in which medically appropriate methods of contraception are provided” (title 18, sect. 3208.1.1). But laws can change far more easily than constitutions.

Those who think “it can’t happen here” just need to revisit American history and also check out futuristic visions like Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

Senate Bill 3, which would move state abortion policy from restrictive to oppressive, has already (with no public hearing) passed the PA Senate 32-18. Chesco’s senator Andy Dinniman (D-19) voted against the bill; senators Tom Killion (R-19) and John Rafferty (R-44, a co-sponsor of the bill) voted for it.

Either those 32 legislators and their allies in the PA House are comfortable with taking more and more control of women’s private lives or they are posturing to their most motivated constituents and donors, or both. Those supporting SB 3 doubtless will keep on their current path until all abortion is banned; and if they succeed in that, the most zealous of them will continue right on to cut down on or eliminate contraception use—all ultimately depending on the PA and US Supreme Courts.


In recent rallies in West Chester (3/11/17 photo above), women have described their need to have an abortion after discovering a fetus was deformed and even unviable. Often such conditions are diagnosed after 20 weeks; a woman in that regrettable situation would not be able to terminate her pregnancy if SB3 becomes law.

SB3 would make abortions illegal at “20 or more weeks gestational age” (currently 24 weeks) — not a lot of time to discover and confirm pregnancy, get medical tests and advice, consult others, and make a difficult decision.

Also, SB3 would make D&E (dilation and evacuation), the safest and most common abortion method in the 2nd-trimester (which begins at 13 weeks) illegal at any time unless a physician certifies it is necessary for a patient to survive or not lose important organ function. (Loss of minor organ functions, whichever they may be, is apparently not taken into account.)

According to the Guttmacher Institute: “Eleven percent of abortions in the United States take place after the first trimester, and national estimates suggest that D&E accounts for roughly 95% of these procedures” and the proposed D&E ban “would force providers to substitute the ideology of lawmakers for their own professional medical judgment and the preferences of their patients.”

The same site shows that restrictions on first-semester abortions are pushing some to the second trimester—exactly what one would expect anti-abortion proponents to avoid if they were really interested in “fetal pain.” No surprise here: placing first-trimester obstacles in the way of abortions both delays them and causes women to seek out other, often less safe than in a recognized clinic or hospital (Slate).

Also no surprise: “as abortion becomes more difficult, the birth rate increases: Study finds increase in birth rates after Texas’ Planned Parenthood funding cuts” (Women’s Health Policy Report, 2/4/16). And that in turn increases the financial burden on both women, state agencies, and Medicaid. The new CBO contraception control would result in several thousand more births at a cost of $21,000,000 this year to the Medicaid budget.

Banning D&E would mean abortion providers would need to use other methods and would place more women at risk. In fact, D&E became the prevalent second-trimester method only after the US Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on the preferred D&X method ten years ago. SB3 is part of a long process to chip away at all abortion rights.

The vote in the Republican-dominated PA House will be a close call—not whether there is a majority, but whether there are enough votes there and in the Senate to override Governor Wolf’s expected veto. All supporters of women’s rights should resolve right now to contact their PA representatives in Harrisburg and to vote in the 2018 election, which could reshape the political scene in Pennsylvania.

Don’t women vote? Don’t a majority of Americans believe in abortion rights? Yes: as of 2016, public support for legal abortion as been on the rise since 2009 and 59% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases compared to 39% who believe it should be illegal in all or most cases (Pew Research Center, 11/3/16, source of the chart below).

But anti-abortion voters are more likely to be single-issue voters, and Pennsylvania electoral districts have been effectively gerrymandered to promote conservative positions. The PA Senate and House are not representative and do not reflect citizens’ opinions.


PS Note on current PA law

I wondered whether everything we read in the media about current PA law on abortion is true, so I studied the relevant sections of PA Statutes Title 18 at Title 18, significantly, treats abortion not as “Women’s rights” but under “Crimes and Offenses.”

Before 24 weeks gestation (out of about 38 weeks average to delivery), abortion is permitted if the referring or operating physician deems it necessary “in the light of all factors (physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman’s age) relevant to the well-being of the woman” (sect. 3204). Presumably, those factors would include rape, incest, incapacity to care for a child, and the like.

Except in a medical emergency, the physician must conduct a personal consultation to inform the women of various factors, including risks and alternatives, at least 24 hours in advance (sect. 3204; SB 3 would add an “in-person” requirement).

Except in a medical emergency, an unemancipated woman under age 18 must receive a parent’s permission or ask a judge to determine that she “is mature and capable of giving informed consent to the proposed abortion, and has, in fact, given such consent” or that abortion is “in her best interests” (sect. 3206).

A married woman must provide a statement (sect. 3209) to the state that she has notified her spouse, except if the pregnancy is not by the spouse, the spouse cannot be found, the pregnancy results from spousal sexual assault, or such notice could result in “the infliction of bodily injury” upon her. (This must be a difficult determination for a physician who is not trained in non-obstetric fields.)

After 24 weeks (sect. 3211), abortion is illegal except “to prevent either the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the woman.” The law gives no consideration to any other factors such as the condition and viability of the fetus. Abortion after 24 weeks must occur in a hospital; Planned Parenthood is not even in this discussion. This is not really abortion but induced labor in a health emergency; a second physician must be present “taking all reasonable steps necessary to preserve the child’s life and health.”

The physician must fill out a complex report to the state in many parts, including items such as how gestational age was determined, whether the spouse was notified and if not, why not. (So much for “small government”!)

Public funding of abortions in PA is allowed only to avert the woman’s death or when pregnancy results from rape or incest (sect 3215). (Federal funds do not pay for abortion.)