This week, Pennsylvania House Republicans advanced the most extreme abortion ban proposed in the state. The so-called “heartbeat bill” will prohibit health-care providers from performing an abortion once a heartbeat, which at such early gestational ages amounts to not much more than electrical activity in cells, is detected. Because that activity can be detected at about six weeks, which is when many individuals find out they are pregnant, the bill would be a de facto abortion ban for most pregnancies.
The Republican-led House Health Committee also advanced a ban on abortions due to Down syndrome diagnosis and a bill that adds more cumbersome regulation for fetal remains, which advocates argue could impose trauma on people after a miscarriage or abortion, as part of the anti-choice package of legislation.
Immediately after the committee vote, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statement saying: “I will veto any anti-choice legislation that lands on my desk.” Wolf has already vetoed a version of the Down syndrome abortion ban in 2019. In 2017, he vetoed a bill that banned abortion at 20 weeks, four weeks earlier than current Pennsylvania law.
Gov. Wolf is one layer of protection against extreme abortion bans like the “heartbeat” bill. The second line of defense is the judiciary. As long as Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, along with five decades of U.S. Supreme Court precedent since it was decided in 1973, federal courts should strike down laws significantly limiting abortion prior to 24 weeks of gestation. As a general rule, laws that ban abortion before viability — 24 weeks — are unconstitutional. Following this precedent, in July 2020, a federal judge struck down Georgia’s “heartbeat” law before it took effect.
The next challenge to a “heartbeat” ban could look very different. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks. The challenge goes to the root of what the Roe court held, and could open the door to earlier bans by removing the relevance of viability.
Even if the U.S. Supreme Court erodes or, at some point, overturns Roe, the abortion landscape in Pennsylvania won’t change overnight. It would remove a federal protection for abortion and leave the issue to the states — letting laws such as “heartbeat” bans stand if passed. And unless there is a shift in power at the legislature that gives Democrats control, that means that the person who succeeds Wolf as governor could single-handedly decide the future of abortion in the commonwealth.
So far, all those who announced a run for governor or who are rumored to do so ahead of 2022 are men. On the Republican side, where there is more action at this early stage, some of the presumed candidates have long records of being anti-choice — including former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta and State Sen. Doug Mastriano.
Abortion is fundamental health care. When access to abortion is limited, abortion doesn’t go away, it just becomes more dangerous. Gov. Wolf is right to veto any bill that would put women at risk — and only a person sharing that commitment should have the opportunity of being his successor.