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How a proposed amendment to the state constitution could affect abortion access in Pennsylvania

The latest effort to limit abortion access in Pennsylvania is moving through the legislature, this time in the form of a constitutional amendment that wouldn't be subject to a gubernatorial veto.

People march around the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building for the Bans Off Our Bodies rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in October.
People march around the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building for the Bans Off Our Bodies rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in October.Read moreThomas Hengge / Staff Photographer

A bill proposing an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would limit abortions is making its way through Harrisburg, prompting concern from abortion-rights advocates that sweeping changes could be coming to the commonwealth.

Introduced by Sen. Judy Ward (R., Blair County) late last year, Senate Bill 956 aims to amend the commonwealth’s constitution to add language indicating that “there is no right to abortion” in the state and that nothing in the state’s constitution “requires taxpayer funding for abortion.” The Senate Health and Human Services Committee approved the bill along party lines on Tuesday.

In a memo, Ward said that the proposed constitutional amendment was prompted by a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court that looks to require public funding for abortions for low-income women through Medicaid. Pennsylvania’s Medicaid laws restrict coverage for most abortions and have done so since 1985.

The call for a constitutional amendment also comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to abortion, in a case regarding Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks. And Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who has vetoed several antiabortion bills, will leave office in January 2023.

Here is what you need to know:

What could happen here? How does the Supreme Court fit in?

The bill’s proponents say that, if passed, the proposed amendment would keep abortions from being covered by taxpayer dollars. It would also ensure that state legislators make decisions about abortion policies, rather than the courts, said Maria Gallagher, legislative director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, states would be able to set more-stringent rules limiting abortions.

“It has an element that allows people, through elected representatives, to pass laws, rather than having courts decide policy on life issues,” Gallagher said.

Abortion-rights advocates worry that the amendment could lay the groundwork for legislators to severely restrict or ban abortion in Pennsylvania. That’s a possibility if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and we see a “hostile legislature and antiabortion governor” elected, said David S. Cohen, a Drexel University professor and an attorney on the Medicaid case currently before the state Supreme Court.

“The real danger here is that it looks like the U.S. Supreme Court is going to drastically cut back on the right to abortion,” Cohen said. “That would leave Pennsylvanians to rely on the Pennsylvania constitution [for abortion rights], and this amendment is trying to stop that possibility.”

» READ MORE: How the Mississippi Supreme Court case could impact abortion access in Pa. and N.J.

Where does Pennsylvania law stand on abortion?

Abortions in Pennsylvania are governed primarily by the Abortion Control Act, which features a number of abortion access laws. Among other elements, Pennsylvania:

  1. Bans abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

  2. Requires parental consent for those under 18.

  3. Institutes a 24-hour waiting period.

  4. Requires consultations discussing the risks and alternatives.

State funds can only be used to perform abortions in cases of rape or incest, or if the mother’s life is in danger.

What else could be affected?

Some abortion-rights advocates are concerned the proposed amendment could affect other sexual and reproductive health care. Its wording seeks to “protect the life of every unborn child from conception to birth,” potentially meaning that a range of treatments and procedures could be affected, said Signe Espinoza, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates.

“The language in the bill is open to interpretation,” Espinoza said. “So, this could have implications for contraception, in-vitro fertilization, miscarriage treatment, and generally whether or not a pregnant person is able to make their own medical decisions about how and whether they give birth.”

Couldn’t Wolf just veto it?

No. Because this is a constitutional amendment, the governor — Wolf or otherwise — is not involved, and can’t use veto powers. Instead, this follows a different process.

To be put up for a vote, proposed constitutional amendments must pass both chambers of the General Assembly two sessions in a row. From there, they become referenda that Pennsylvania voters can approve or reject directly during an election. If a majority of voters favor the amendment, it becomes part of the constitution and goes into effect.

Often, Spotlight PA recently reported, voters do approve proposed constitutional amendments. In fact, since 1968, only six of 49 proposed amendments that reached voters were rejected. And legislators are increasingly leaning on amendments, proposing more than 70 changes to the state constitution since January 2021.

» READ MORE: A complete guide and amendment tracker for proposed changes to Pennsylvania’s Constitution

What is the public’s stance on abortion?

Nationwide, polls have shown broad support for abortion in many cases, as well as support for upholding Roe v. Wade. In Pennsylvania, a Franklin and Marshall poll from October found that 51% of respondents thought abortion should be legal in certain circumstances. An additional 36% said it should be legal under any circumstance, and 11% said it should be illegal in all circumstances.