Pa. Senate passes controversial abortion ban, sends bill to House

Pennsylvania Budget
Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said he was supporting the bill because “dismemberment abortions” are “inhumane” and “barbaric.”

HARRISBURG — After three hours of emotional debate, the Pennsylvania Senate on Wednesday voted largely along party lines to pass a controversial bill that critics say will roll back abortion rights in the state.

The Senate voted, 32-18, to approve the Republican-backed measure, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy except in medical emergencies. Current law allows them to be performed up to 24 weeks.

 The bill, which is similar to bans passed in 17 states, did not receive a hearing or input from the state’s medical community.  It now moves to the GOP-controlled House, which passed a similar measure last year and is not expected to return to session until mid-March.

Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, has vowed to veto the bill, saying it is bad for women's rights, and would interfere in the decision-making relationship between doctors and patients.

Senate Republicans hold a big enough majority to override his veto, but Wednesday’s vote fell two votes short of the 34 they would need for a successful override. Three Republicans, including Sen. Chuck McIlhinney of Bucks County, opposed the measure. One Democrat, Sen. James Brewster of Allegheny County, voted for it. 

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.

“Fetal medicine has changed so much,” said Sen. Michele Brooks (R., Mercer). “This legislation seeks to reflect these changes in medicine and to update our law according to these changes.”

But there is vigorous debate on that question among medical professionals.

Beyond the 20-week provision, the bill would also sharply curtail a procedure known as dilation and evacuation, often used in second-trimester abortions, according to medical experts. The bill refers to the procedure as “dismemberment abortion,” although that is not a medically accepted or defined term, and says doctors who perform it could be charged with a felony.

Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said he was supporting the bill because “dismemberment abortions” are “inhumane” and “barbaric.”

Opponents were equally passionate.

Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) said the bill’s backers could not answer fundamental questions about the proposal, including what constitutes a medical emergency.

“I would note that when we talk about government staying out of our lives — can you imagine anything more intrusive than this?” Leach asked. “Government tells you not to serve trans fats in a restaurant, and it’s 'Oh, my God, it’s the nanny state’ … But we want government inside the doctor’s office and inside the uteruses of the women in our lives.”

But it was Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican from Luzerne County, whose comments on the floor brought the chamber to a standstill.

Baker said she discovered well into pregnancy that the child she was carrying had a rare chromosomal abnormality.  The girl was stillborn. 

Criminalizing and legislating medical decisions could set “a dangerous precedent,” she said, questioning why there wasn’t a hearing to air questions and concerns.  Baker voted against the measure.

“If this bill cannot withstand an open round of debate, involving the medical community and ethicists, what do we really have here?” she asked. “Is it possible to go too far in law and sanction to where we cost lives when we are really intending to save them?”

Karen Langley of the Harrisburg bureau contributed to this article.