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Abortion bill heads to Gov. Wolf for veto

Overriding the veto would be difficult for the Republican-controlled legislature.

Gov. Wolf
Gov. WolfRead moreMatt Rourke

HARRISBURG — A controversial bill to restrict abortion rights in Pennsylvania is heading to Gov. Wolf, opening the door for a showdown between him and the Republican-controlled legislature.

Wolf, a Democrat, has promised to veto the bill, calling it "the most extreme anti-choice legislation in the country" and "an assault on the doctor-patient relationship by politicians without medical or health expertise."

The bill, Senate Bill 3, would ban abortions at the 20-week mark of pregnancy except in some medical emergencies. That's four weeks earlier than under the current state law. It passed the House on Tuesday night, 121-70. The same bill passed the Senate in February, 32-18.

It would also sharply curtail a second-trimester surgical procedure the bill's supporters refer to as "dismemberment abortion," a term that is not widely recognized in the medical community.

Legislators could try to override the governor's veto, but that would be a difficult task. Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote of all of the members in each chamber. Both chambers were shy of that mark when they passed the bill.

Still, the issue quickly became a talking point in the upcoming governor's race.

State Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York) voted for the bill when it passed the Senate, and House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) voted for it on Tuesday night. Both are running for the Republican nomination to challenge Wolf next year, and less than an hour after Tuesday night's vote, Wagner and Turzai sent out statements supporting the bill.

In addition to banning abortions at the 20-week mark, the bill would make it a felony for doctors to cause "the death of an unborn child by means of dismembering the unborn child and extracting the unborn child one piece at a time."  The bill contains some exceptions "to prevent either the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the woman."

Critics complained that it didn't contain exceptions for women who are victims of rape or incest or for fetal abnormalities, though supporters have said that doesn't differ from current law.

The bill did not receive a public hearing featuring testimony from the state's medical community.

Representatives debated for more than three hours before they passed the bill Tuesday night. Much of the discussion centered around ideological arguments about when a fetus becomes viable and whether the government should play a role in determining when women can get abortions.

Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) said he feared the bill would force women to carry pregnancies to term even when they know their child would be born with a condition that results in a "short and brutally painful life."

Opponents of the bill, including the Pennsylvania Medical Society, have noted that women often get a key ultrasound around the 20th week that allows doctors to detect abnormalities that can be life-threatening to the fetus.

"I suspect that physicians don't want to be forced to choose between compliance with arbitrary, unnecessary barriers put in place by non-medical professionals from doing what they know is best for the women in front of them," Frankel said.

Later in the debate, one of his Democratic colleagues, Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky of Delaware County, read examples of women who learned about fetal abnormalities after the 20-week mark.

Supporters of the bill, including anti-abortion groups and Republican supporters of the bill, say medical science has advanced to allow a fetus to be viable earlier than 24 weeks measured from a woman's last menstrual period — the commonly accepted marker in the medical community.

Rep. Judy Ward, a Republican from Blair County and a nurse, shared those concerns and said fetuses who feel pain "are viable human beings."

"They all matter," she said of the women, "but so do the lives of the unborn."

"If you have any conscience, the only vote you can make is yes," she said.

In the end, a majority of her colleagues agreed.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the bill would ban abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy. The ban would apply at the 20-week mark.