There’s no doubt that naming a new Supreme Court justice, with Senate confirmation hearings to follow, puts abortion back on center stage in national and state politics.
That’s because there’s no doubt that President Trump is picking, as promised, an antiabortion justice — one, assuming confirmation, likely to tip the high court’s balance against its 1973 precedent-setting Roe v. Wade.
So, the doubly divisive, gut-wrenching issue is back in serious play. It’s all but certain to head back to the states, which begs the question of how much impact it will have on the governor’s race in Pennsylvania.
It should have some. Whoever is governor in the next four years gets to sign or veto abortion bills. Pennsylvania is an abortion battlefield, starting point for maybe the most significant Supreme Court ruling on the issue since Roe (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992), allowing states to impose some restrictions, such as parental consent and a waiting period.
Meanwhile, our Republican legislature consistently seeks further restrictions.
Last year, it easily passed a bill (cosponsored by GOP candidate Scott Wagner) to ban abortion after 20 weeks, four weeks earlier than current law.
Incumbent Democratic Gov. Wolf vetoed the measure last December.
Wolf and Wagner, now a former senator, are polar opposites on the issue.
Wagner also cosponsored a bill, still pending in the Senate, to defund Planned Parenthood. He supported a pending House bill, referred to as a “heartbeat bill,” banning abortion as early as six weeks if a fetal heartbeat is found. And he’s promised, if elected, to sign antiabortion legislation.
Wolf, on the other hand, was a Planned Parenthood volunteer, and recently received a campaign contribution commitment from the organization’s Pennsylvania chapter for $1.5 million.
So, in a state with a legislature opposed to abortion and an abortion-rights governor, at a time abortion is front and center, how do voters react? And who benefits: Wagner or Wolf?
Well, in vote-rich, left-leaning Southeastern Pennsylvania, one can argue that attention to the possibility of overthrowing or further narrowing Roe helps Wolf.
He is promoted as “the last line of defense against attacks on women’s health in Pennsylvania,” says his campaign spokesperson Beth Melena.
This in a year when female voters are said to be especially energized.
(And, yes, I know not all female voters are abortion-rights activists.)
And what about in the rest of the state, which elects and reelects antiabortion lawmakers?
Wagner spokesperson Andrew Romeo says, “We’re confident in Scott’s record and its contrast with Gov. Wolf’s. Scott is pro-life because he thinks it’s in the best interest of Pennsylvania, and he thinks it’s what Pennsylvania wants.”
Recent in-state public polling on abortion is scant, largely because it’s been settled law since 1973. And polling results can vary depending on the question.
Current Gallup polling, asking whether one is “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” shows that 48 percent of Americans claim to be pro-choice and 48 percent claim to be pro-life.
Yet Pew state-by-state polling in 2014, asking whether abortion should be legal “in all/most cases” or illegal “in all/most cases,” shows Pennsylvanians favoring legal abortion 51-44.
Maybe the needle moved in four years. Maybe not.
Sari Stevens, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania director, believes the state’s abortion-rights vote is now larger because of looming threats to legal abortion: “It’s been safe to not be pro-choice because abortion has been legal. It’s been safe to pass abortion bans because they’d been struck down by the courts.”
Stevens says the game has changed. And the game favors Wolf.
Email and phone requests seeking comment from the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation brought no response.
But Christopher Nicholas, a GOP campaign adviser who worked on or managed campaigns for the late Sen. Arlen Specter (a rare abortion-rights-Republican-turned-Democrat) suggests that there’s more to the issue.
“I think it energizes both party bases,” he says, “but there are more pro-life Democrats in Pennsylvania than there are pro-choice Republicans.”
Electoral impact depends – as with any issue in any campaign – on who votes and in what numbers. But this issue, divisive and passion-inducing, is back in play in Pennsylvania. Expect to hear about it from your candidates.