Why the Pa. gov race means the difference between life & death to some

Bruce Siwy
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

When the Roe v. Wade draft decision leaked in May, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf vowed that abortion would remain "legal and safe" during his tenure.

Wolf's second and final term, however, ends in approximately six months. And the person chosen by voters to succeed him will likely have significant leverage to determine how and when — oreven if — a woman can receive a legal abortion in the commonwealth.

Because of this, the vote for governor this fall has taken on a life-or-death urgency for some.

Overturned:The Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What happens next in Pa.?

"It's incredibly dangerous," said Jessica Brady, a 17-year-old activist from Monroe County. "I think on the Supreme Court level they just got the ball rolling with (overturning) Roe v. Wade. I think its just going to be a domino effect."

In Pennsylvania, the law allows for abortions to be performed up to the 24th week of the pregnancy. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro has vowed to at least uphold this law — a position supported by a majority of Pennsylvanians, according to recent polling that also shows Shapiro with a slight lead.

GOP nominee Doug Mastriano and fellow Republicans in the Legislature have advanced bills to restrict abortion access. And Mastriano's zero-tolerance position on abortion would potentially make Pennsylvania the most restrictive in the country.

Like Brady, Philadelphia native Marlene Downing said she also believes represents a life-or-death scenario. But as a formerly pro-choice individual who changed her mind after she had two abortions and a religious awakening, she's on the other end of the spectrum.

Anti-abortion supporters took part in a March for Life rally, on Jan. 29, 2022, at Perry Square in Erie.

"It's beautiful for me to even see that this would happen," Downing, deputy state director for the Pennsylvania branch of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America organization, said of the Roe decision.

"For some reason I knew this would take place, I just didn't know it would be now. The joy for me is knowing that there is hope ... that we can actually go state by state to fight it out."

Community members gather in downtown York to protest against the overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022.
Community members gather outside downtown York to protest against the overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022.

Josh Shapiro abortion position

In line with Wolf, who has vetoed more restrictive measures, Shapiro has pledged to at least secure existing abortion rights.

A day after the Roe decision, Shapiro attended a rally of approximately 1,500 in Philadelphia. He characterized the ruling as "devastating" in a press release.

“As Governor, I will veto any bill that restricts a woman’s right to choose. Our next Governor will decide whether abortion remains legal in our Commonwealth — I will defend the freedom of Pennsylvania women to make decisions over their own bodies,” Shapiro said.

For this reason, voters like Dina Kramer, a 75-year-old independent who lives in Philadelphia, see Shapiro as the only sane option.

"I think it's an absolute disgrace," she said regarding the Roe overturn. "How can men make decisions about women's bodies?"

"The young women today won't have the same rights I had when I was younger. I just worry about all young people. (Abortion is) a very hard decision to make. You don't need people in Washington or a governor making it even harder on someone."

Women, including Katie Kirk, 22, left, and Mia Cipalla, 26, front, voice support for abortion rights while gathered in Perry Square in Erie on May 3, 2022. A leaked draft of an opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court states that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision "must be overruled." There is no federal law protecting or prohibiting abortion so striking down those laws would leave abortion laws up to the states.

On the day of the Roe ruling, seven members of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus circulated a memo on codifying the right to legal abortions into state law. They wrote that the Supreme Court's move to overturn Roe was made by "harmful right wing special interests" against the will of the people.

A recent Suffolk's University/USA Today Network poll indicated that 58% of Pennsylvanians want to protect abortion rights, while 30% seek new abortion restrictions, 11% are undecided and 1% refused to answer.

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“If we cannot trust the Court to protect the rights of Pennsylvanians, then it is up to us in the state Legislature to defend our rights to make decisions about our own bodies," state Sen. Katie Muth (D-Berks/Chester/Montgomery) said. "We cannot and we will never back down in the fight to protect our rights, our bodies, and our right to choice.”

The move to codify abortion access, however, seems largely symbolic given the fact that the GOP majority in the General Assembly has exclusively advanced bills to restrict access in recent years — each of them vetoed by Wolf.

Most recently, Republicans in the senate voted July 7 to advance an amendment to the commonwealth's constitution explicitly stating that Pennsylvanians have no right to an abortion. State Sen. Judy Ward said she sponsored the bill in an effort to give abortion-related decisions to the Legislature, while Democrats decried the move as the prelude to a total ban.

Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, proposed amendments have to pass both chambers in a two-year legislative session and be publicly advertised before becoming a ballot referendum to be decided by the voters.

Doug Mastriano abortion position

Mastriano, meanwhile, has stated his opposition to abortion in all instances, leaving no exception for rape, incest or danger to the mother's life.

“There’s something really wrong here. Something nefarious is going on," the state senator said during a 2019 interview. "We turn our backs on the most vulnerable, those who don’t have a voice, and let them be massacred in the womb."

It's unclear whether a measure to ban abortion, without exception, would be supported by even the conservative-leaning General Assembly. Legislation suggested by Mastriano would go further than all other existing abortion laws in the United States.

Mastriano has authored bills that would require doctors to check the fetus for a heartbeat and prohibit them from performing an abortion if a heartbeat is detected. He called abortion his top issue during a televised GOP debate.

Anti-abortion supporters walk along Sassafras Street during the March for Life rally, Jan. 29, 2022, at Perry Square in Erie.

A reiteration of Mastriano's total-ban-without-exception comment, however, was absent from the statement he released the day of the Roe ruling.

“While this decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is a triumph for innocent life, it must not take our focus away from the key issues facing Pennsylvania families," he said.

“Pennsylvanians will not be distracted by the hysterics of the left as they exploit this ruling to try to fulfill their far-left agenda. As they struggle with all-time record-high inflation, the people care deeply about the price of gas and groceries, as well as out-of-control crime and good-paying jobs -- which is exactly why I will prioritize these issues as their governor.”

Anti-abortion protestor Tim Broderick of Millcreek Township holds a sign on Peninsula Drive near the intersection with West 12th Street while he and others wait for Tom Wolf, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Governor, who was scheduled to make a campaign stop at the campaign headquarters for Pennsylvania State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro and Wolf in Millcreek Township on Oct. 28, 2014.

Nonetheless, to anti-abortion activists like Bonnie Finnerty, education director for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, Mastriano's pledge to roll back access is an exciting possibility.

According to Finnerty, her branch of the National Right to Life Committee isn't a bunch of "old white men wanting to control women's bodies." She said it's a diverse organization representing people of various ages, sexes, races and religions who are passionate about providing additional legal protection to the unborn and helping expectant parents find alternatives to abortion.

"This was an issue that should be decided by the people through their duly elected officials," she said of Roe v. Wade.

"This is an opportunity for people to learn more about abortion: how it's done, how it hurts women. We need to have some more education, more conversation, more civil debate to come to an understanding about what is best for women, children, families and society."

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A protester holds a sign at a rally for abortion rights in downtown Pittsburgh Friday evening.

Other PA candidates for governor

Christina DiGiulio of the Green Party, Joseph Soloski of the Keystone Party of Pennsylvania and Matt Hackenburg of the Libertarian Party are also on the ballot.

DiGuilio called the Supreme Court's decision June 24 a "sad day for women" on her Twitter account, expressing support for abortion access. Soloski's website states that he believes the government should neither prevent abortion access or provide funding for procedures, while Hackenburg's site makes no mention of the topic.

None of these candidates polled above 1% in the recent Suffolk University/USA Today Network poll.

Organized by the Pittsburgh Women's March, the rally included remarks from western Pennsylvania leaders who shared both anger and calls to action. Many demanded an abolished filibuster and an expanded Supreme Court.

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA Today Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com or on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.