Lt. Gov. Stack: I regret voting for ill-conceived anti-abortion law

1200 lt gov mike stack
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mike Stack writes that he greatly regrets voting in favor of a restrictive abortion law when he was in the state Senate.

Of all the votes I cast as a state senator, it might be the one I regret the most.

I hope current members of the Pennsylvania Senate don't make the same mistake this year when they consider the oppressive, new abortion restrictions contained in House Bill 1948.

In 2011, legislation came before the state Senate to place new requirements on abortion providers. In the wake of the Dr. Kermit Gosnell matter, the legislation was couched as an effort to protect women's health. Too late, I realized it was really an attack on lawful abortion providers and on women's rights.

Gosnell was convicted of murdering three infants born alive during abortions at his Philadelphia clinic. He also was charged with other felony counts of illegal abortion practices and distribution of controlled substances. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

His case prompted outrage, rightly so, around the country. People in my Northeast Philadelphia community were horrified at what had occurred so close to home.

One unfortunate result at the state Capitol, however, was legislation that eventually became Act 122. It required facilities providing abortion services to be licensed as outpatient surgical centers.

During consideration of the bill in the Senate, I voted for a number of proposed amendments supported by Planned Parenthood that would have made the law more reasonable. Those amendments failed. So in the end, with the intent of protecting women's health by preventing more Gosnell-type incidents, I voted in favor of the legislation on final passage.

Knowing what I know now, I would have voted "no." The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down a Texas law that used similar burdensome licensing standards and hospital admitting privilege requirements for physicians, in a veiled attempt "protect women" by shutting down abortion providers.

The real purpose was to deny women access to safe legal abortions. The Supreme Court said the law, which would have resulted in most Texas providers having to close their doors, posed a substantial obstacle to women seeking an abortion and imposed an undue burden, while providing few, if any, health benefits.

In fact, such a law might well have the perverse effect of making Gosnell-like atrocities more likely, not less. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in siding with the 5-3 court majority, when a state severely limits access to safe and legal abortions, some women may resort to rogue practitioners at great risk to their health and safety. Gosnell was, after all, already violating existing law. Others may resort to potentially deadly "do-it- yourself" abortion techniques. Between 100,000 and 240,000 women in Texas did just that following passage of the law there in 2013.

The ruling is prompting another look at Act 122 to see whether Pennsylvania's surgical licensing requirement constitutes an undue burden akin to the one the Supreme Court negated in Texas. According to one news report, the number of abortion providers in Pennsylvania declined by five in the first two years the law was in effect.

And yet, even as we face the prospect of our law also conflicting with the Supreme Court's position, the state House of Representatives has passed and sent to the Senate another bill that would restrict abortion even more severely. It would outlaw the procedure after the 20th week of pregnancy (instead of the current 24 weeks) except in cases of medical necessity, and it would outlaw a common medical method of second-trimester abortions.

Once again, we see in HB 1948 a bid to reduce access to safe legal abortion under the guise of guarding a woman's health, rather than more rigorously enforcing laws already on the books to protect women's health and avoid more Gosnells. As in Texas, some in Pennsylvania are attempting to put hurdles in front of women seeking reproductive health care - and, in the process, risking women's health and safety.

The Senate could take up the bill when it returns to session in the fall. Gov. Wolf has vowed to veto it should it reach his desk, but the final vote in the House on June 21 was 132-65 - close to the two-thirds margin needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

HB 1948 is an assault on a woman's ability to make the decision that's best for her and her family, nothing more. I urge members of the Senate to see it for what it is, and to think about the Supreme Court's newly articulated view on the unconstitutionality of regulations designed merely to place roadblocks in the way of legal abortions under the guise of protecting women's health.

I was in those lawmakers' shoes several years ago, and I made the wrong decision. They have an opportunity to learn a lesson from my experience.

Mike Stack is lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.