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Bill restricting abortions resurfaces in Pa. legislature

PA House poised to approve a controversial bill that would roll back abortion rights in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania state Capitol building, where the Republican-controlled legislature is pushing a controversial abortion ban bill. Photographer: Paul Taggart/Bloomberg
The Pennsylvania state Capitol building, where the Republican-controlled legislature is pushing a controversial abortion ban bill. Photographer: Paul Taggart/BloombergRead morePaul Taggart/Bloomberg

HARRISBURG — The Republican-controlled Legislature could soon send Gov. Wolf a much-debated bill to roll back abortion rights in Pennsylvania.

A key House committee on Monday passed the legislation, which calls for banning abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy except in medical emergencies. Under current law, a woman cannot have an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy. The proposed measure would also sharply curtail a surgical procedure used in second-trimester abortions, which the bill's supporters refer to as "dismemberment abortions," a term not medically recognized.

A final floor vote in the House could occur as early as next week, and, if approved, would go to Wolf. The chamber passed a similar measure during its last two-year legislative session.

Wolf, a Democrat, has vowed to veto the proposed bill, calling it "the most extreme anti-choice legislation in the country" and "an attack on women."

"I have met with women and medical professionals, and understand how devastating and dangerous this bill would be for patients," Wolf said in a statement Monday. He added: "Put simply, women's health care decisions should be left up to women and their doctors, not politicians in Harrisburg."

Abortion-rights advocates and others, including many Democratic and some moderate Republican legislators, have decried the bill, which has not received a single public hearing featuring testimony from the state's medical community.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society has written several legislators stating its opposition to the bill, and an association representing gynecologists and obstetricians has expressed misgivings.

Among their concerns is that women often receive a critical ultrasound around the 20th week of pregnancy that can detect abnormalities that, in many cases, can be life-threatening to the fetus.

"We should be giving doctors the latitude to be able to have a conversation with a woman and her family about what's in the best interest," said State Rep. Ed Gainey (D., Allegheny), who voted against the measure. "That should not be legislated by any government."

Added State Rep. Pamela DeLissio (D., Montgomery): "When we pass this type of blanket legislation, we are in fact tying the hands of the licensed health care practitioner."

Anti-abortion groups and Republican proponents of the 20-week ban say there have been enough advances in medical science for 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. Matt Baker (R., Bradford), chairman of the House Health Committee that passed the bill Monday along partisan lines, said he believes the issue had been "properly vetted," warranting a vote in his committee without a public hearing.

Baker said there are a number of medical practitioners who support the bill, including the Christian Medical Doctors and Dentists.

"It's an issue that you are either going to be voting for or against, whether you are going to be pro-life or pro-abortion,"  Baker said.

In his mind, Baker added, the matter "is a sanctity of life issue."