What do you get when you combine the odious optics of a dead of night vote with one of the most politically potent issues of the last 50 years?
If you’re a Pennsylvania Republican, and you’re pushing a constitutional amendment declaring that there’s no right to abortion in the state’s foundational document, the answer might well be “more than you bargained for.”
Last week, Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled state Senate voted 28-22 to approve the amendment language, which also declares that there’s no right to public funding for the procedure. That vote came after a rare late-night session in which the Senate pushed the bill through committee over the objections of Democrats.
The Republican-majority House followed suit hours later, with debate reaching such a pitch that proceedings had to be halted on several occasions.
Under Pennsylvania law, constitutional amendments must be approved in identical form in consecutive legislative sessions, and then by the voters at a statewide referendum. If the bill stays on its current track, it could end up on the spring 2023 primary ballot.
And with tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians already enraged, and public opinion polls continuing to show strong support for keeping abortion legal under all or most circumstances, the GOP just handed abortion-rights supporters a powerful motivating tool, one veteran consultant said.
“People were feeling helpless after Roe,” Mustafa Rashed, the president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Bellevue Strategies, said. “The Republicans just gave them something to do.”
In general, Pennsylvania’s ballot referenda, held in so-called “off-year” elections, tend to be low-turnout affairs, dealing with such wonky issues as the mandatory retirement age for judges.
That also means the ballot questions usually are decided by a minority of a minority of the commonwealth’s voters – and they usually are passed without much opposition.
But with abortion on the ballot, it’s a different debate altogether.
“People can get their heads around a woman’s right to choose,” Rashed said.
During last week’s committee meeting – and in the hours after it – activists and lawmakers already were drawing parallels to the infamous 2005 legislative pay raises, which similarly were passed late at night.
The raises provoked what was then an unprecedented public backlash, with senior lawmakers and one Pennsylvania Supreme court justice losing their jobs in a tidal wave of populist anger. Lawmakers repealed the raises months later.
While it’s unclear if such a perfect storm will repeat itself, there were hints of it on Friday afternoon, as pro-abortion rights protesters occupied a hallway in the Capitol after rallying on the building’s front steps.
“For extremists, the vote was about politics, but for the rest of us, it’s about removing access health care from abortion to contraception to [in vitro fertilization],” Signe Espinoza, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates said in a statement. “We’ve seen the far-right playbook in other states leading up to the fall of Roe, and this is another step on the path to an outright abortion ban.”
The potential referendum vote also will be prefaced this fall by a pair of high-stakes contests that will serve as test cases – the race for Pennsylvania governor and the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, where abortion rights already are on the ballot.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro, who supports abortion rights, has vowed to veto GOP-led attacks on the procedure, just as current Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has done for his two terms.
Shapiro faces Republican Doug Mastriano, an anti-abortion absolutist who opposes exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of a pregnant person. The race is attracting national attention, and as it continues to heat up, it also is likely to attract millions of dollars in outside spending.
“A lot of money and attention will flow into Pennsylvania,” during a future referendum fight, Rashed said, because of the high-stakes nature of the debate, and because of its potential to impact surrounding states.
In addition, all 203 seats in the state House and half the 50-member Senate also are up for re-election, giving voters other places to focus their anger.
So instead of seeking to end an argument with ramming through constitutional boilerplate for short-term gain, Republicans may have just started one that could end up costing them in the long run.
“If you support the right to choose, this is a golden opportunity,” Rashed said.
Copyright 2022 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.