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Candy Woodall | Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau
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Liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is retiring, giving President Joe Biden an opening he has pledged to fill by naming the first Black woman to the high court. (Jan. 26)
Pennsylvania Republicans have worked for decades to restrict abortion access, but Democrats say the majority party is closer than ever to making it happen.
The two parties have long debated the ideological issue, but this time Republicans are willing to sidestep the executive branch and use the constitutional amendment process to pass their agenda.
“I’m very much concerned,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. “The chances of this happening are very real, better than 50/50.”
His concern stems from Republicans moving forward with a plan this week to eliminate Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto power and put their anti-abortion proposal on the ballot.
If the GOP passes its plan in the General Assembly before November and again in January, the abortion issue could land on voters’ ballots in the 2023 primary, an off-year election with a turnout that typically favors Republicans.
Democrats in the statehouse have had a solid line of defense in Wolf, a York County Democrat and pro-choice stalwart who has vetoed every piece of anti-abortion legislation that has come to his desk.
But his second term is about to expire and the 2022 race for governor is wide open.
More than a dozen Republican candidates are running for governor, and many have already identified as pro-life.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the only Democrat in the race, has repeatedly vowed to protect a woman’s right to choose.
But the Republican-controlled Legislature won’t need a governor’s support or be deterred by a potential veto if their plan passes.
Putting abortion on the ballot
Rather than go the usual route of a bill becoming a law, Republicans want to put abortion on the ballot and circumvent the traditional legislative process.
A bill passed out of committee Tuesday that would amend the state constitution to restrict access to abortion and prevent public funds, such as Medicaid, from paying for abortions for low-income patients. The bill is expected to pass with overwhelming support in the General Assembly.
It is one of 26 constitutional amendments presently being considered by state Republican lawmakers.
By comparison, the U.S. constitution has been amended 27 times in 200 years.
Democrats say Republicans are trying to govern by constitutional amendment rather than negotiate across the political aisle in a bipartisan fashion.
Republicans say they are giving power back to Pennsylvania voters.
“Efforts on the part of Democrats suggesting advancing constitutional amendments as a way to govern is a soundbite to cover up their efforts to bypass the people and is a fundamental mischaracterization of the legislative process,” said Erica Clayton Wright, spokesperson for the Senate Republican Caucus.
Technically, the General Assembly can’t legislate by constitutional amendment, she said.
“The legislature proposes changes to the constitution, but the ultimate power lies with the people to decide,” Wright said. “Time and time again, and especially throughout the pandemic, Democrats continue to pass the buck on legislating and instead use the courts and executive powers as a means to either halt good legislation or advance their progressive agenda.”
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GOP candidates for governor support pro-life legislation
Charlie Gerow, a political strategist and Republican candidate for governor, agrees with the use of constitutional amendments and would support the GOP proposals if he’s elected.
“I would sign any abortion bills that Tom Wolf has vetoed,” he said. “I wish we didn’t have to use constitutional amendments. Tom Wolf has made it necessary. He hasn’t dealt with the Legislature. This is the only way get around his single veto power.”
A spokesperson for Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Congressman Lou Barletta said he would support anti-abortion efforts in the statehouse.
“Everyone knows that Lou Barletta is pro-life,” a Barletta spokesperson said. “He’s not going to predict what kind of legislation will come to his desk, but when he’s governor he will be a pro-life governor.”
Business owner and GOP candidate for governor Dave White also supports Republican plans to end abortions.
“Dave White is proudly pro-life and was honored to march alongside tens of thousands of advocates for life at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., last week,” said campaign spokesman Matt Beynon. “As governor, Dave will foster a culture of life and work with the Legislature to protect the unborn and ensure that not a penny of taxpayers’ money pays for abortion.”
The fight for women
The abortion fight in Pennsylvania is happening as the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, is deciding a case that could weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision in 1973 that made abortion legal and protected a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions.
Many Republican-led statehouses across the country have passed anti-abortion laws in recent years, including the more than 100 abortion restrictions that were signed into law in 2021.
“I’m legitimately concerned,” said House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.
With the high court decision pending, a potential supermajority for the GOP if a Republican wins the governor’s office in November and efforts to restrict abortion through a constitutional amendment process, McClinton said Republicans seem “dangerously close” to ending 49 years of “safe, legal abortions.”
She said Democrats are informing the public about these measures and how dangerous it is to reopen the constitution as a way of governing and pushing a partisan political agenda.
Shapiro, the lone Democrat in the governor’s race, will continue to fight for a woman’s right to choose, his campaign spokesman Will Simons said.
“Attorney General Josh Shapiro has always fought to protect reproductive rights — and just like the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians, he opposes the GOP’s extreme abortion bans,” Simons said. “As governor, Josh will continue to defend the right to choose, and if Harrisburg Republicans insist on going around the legislative process to ram through a partisan agenda, he’ll vigorously oppose the amendment and work to defeat it at the ballot box.”
Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capital Bureau. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
This content was originally published here.