By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Late October is so full of familiar autumnal comforts. The leaves are changing, the weather has cooled down, and football season is in full swing.
It’s not Halloween yet, but in many stores, there are already Christmas decorations everywhere. It’s an odd-year election, and if you listen closely enough you can hear the pitter-patter of folks knocking doors for candidates for the municipal and state races on the ballot. Smells of fall fill the air; cider, bonfires, and if you’re at my house, pumpkin candles. I unabashedly love fall.
But wait, I’m getting a waft of something else. What is that? A proposed abortion ban in PA by the House Republicans? And that’s how I know election day is approaching because, like clockwork, this happens each year.
Across the country, six-week abortion bans, misleadingly named “Heartbeat Bills” are all the rage. In the last couple years, these have passed in Ohio, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Iowa. As early as 2013 similar bills were passed in North Dakota and Arkansas. The wave of abortion bans coming up like weeds across the country are an intentional and frankly effective tactic the anti-choice movement has used to try to limit abortion access. A bill is passed in one state, then used as a blueprint for other states, and so on.
The new bill in PA, like all of the others, was written without the consultation of doctors and patients and is not even remotely based in science. I could get into the weeds on how at six weeks, there isn’t actually a heart to beat, but that has been written about extensively by medical experts, and that’s really not the point. At six weeks of pregnancy, a person’s period could be only a couple of weeks late, and they’d have already passed the window of legal termination. Effectively, these “heartbeat laws” render all abortion illegal.
Thankfully, none of these bills ever became law, because every single one has either been vetoed or struck down by the courts. This is no surprise since a six-week ban clearly sets restrictions months before a pregnancy is viable, so it goes against Roe V. Wade. So if these bills are set to fail and can’t pass constitutional muster, why are they so hot hot hot right now? Because that’s the damn point. Anti-choice folks are throwing all of these blatantly unconstitutional laws at the courts because with tons of conservative Trump-appointed judges all over the federal courts, folks are hoping one of these laws will go to SCOTUS where Roe V. Wade might finally be overturned. This isn’t a cynical or paranoid take, folks. The architects of these bills aren’t leaving this to subtext. When asked about this, Ohio State Rep. Christina Hagan, sponsor of their six-week ban said “I’m not concerned if this ends up in the court, this is exactly why we crafted it. Our intention is to go directly to the heart of Roe V Wade.”
The bill didn’t make it to the Supreme Court. In fact, it didn’t even become law. Governor John Kasich, a Republican, vetoed the bill. Shortly after, the Ohio legislature passed a 20-week abortion ban, and Kasich signed it. This is part of a long-game that anti-choice folks are playing to restrict access. Vetoing a six-week ban only to pass one at 20 weeks was an attempt to show that Kasich was being measured, striking a compromise. Sure folks will halt these extreme six-week bans, but hey, what about 20 weeks? This is a calculated effort to shift the Overton window for folks to be more amenable to restricting abortion at different points. The issue is, whether at six weeks or 20 weeks, neither meet the threshold of viability set by Roe’s 24 weeks. Make no mistake; 20-week bans are extreme. Most fetal anomalies don’t appear on ultrasound until 18 weeks, putting folks with high-risk pregnancies in danger. In many iterations of these bills, the exception to the law to preserve the health of the mother is so narrow, a person could lose their entire reproductive system and it still wouldn’t meet the threshold. That bill passed the Pennsylvania State House and Senate in December 2017.
When that bill was sent to Governor Wolf’s desk he swiftly vetoed it, just like he promises to do with this six-week bill. Wolf was the only Democratic governor to run last year in a state where Trump won in 2016, and thank goodness we still have him. Newsweek released an article stating that Pennsylvania may be the next state to ban all abortion, and Governor Wolf quickly responded: “Correction: Pennsylvania will NOT be the next state to ban abortion because I will VETO this bill. #StopTheBans.” It’s fabulous that we can count on Governor Wolf, but shameful that this is how legislators are spending our tax dollars. The dire state of pregnant woman and babies in Pennsylvania shows the hypocrisy; according to Women’s Law Project, “Pennsylvania is one of the worst states for pregnancy discrimination, in part because the Legislature has repeatedly blocked the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.,” and “a bill to reduce infant mortality by clarifying workplace accommodations for nursing mothers.”
For now, the six-week ban is sitting in the PA House Health Committee. Of the 43 cosponsors on the legislation, all but three are men. A cosponsor of note is Allegheny County’s own Rep. Harry Readshaw. He has a bad record on choice, but he voted against the 20 week ban in 2017. Now he’s the lone Democrat sponsor, which is interesting considering Jessica Benham just announced her primary challenge to Readshaw, who’s held the seat since 1994. I don’t know what to call Readshaw’s odd strategy; usually with a progressive primary challenger a Democrat would run to the left, but perhaps he’ll make the switch to Republican. I guess we’ll find out in a few months?
It would be great if political attempts to strip folks of their bodily autonomy weren’t such a dependable hallmark before upcoming elections. What I’d really like to see in 2020 is the fall of the patriarchy.