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Texas sets stage for abortion battles

With lawmakers preparing for an early return and the U.S. Supreme Court allowing a restrictive new Texas abortion law to take effect, Pennsylvania’s abortion rights activists are steeling themselves for new fights.

At least one state legislator has already said he intends to propose a law that would impose new restrictions on abortion, and others said they hope to investigate university research that they claim uses fetal tissue.

While there’s little chance of major anti-abortion legislation passing under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, the recurring appearance of restrictive bills shows how quickly that could change.

“In Pennsylvania, we will continue to stand up for the fundamental right of women to choose the best paths for themselves and their families,” Rep. Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery, said in a written statement last week, after the Supreme Court denied an injunction to stop a new Texas law that effectively bans abortion after six weeks. “Restricting reproductive choice is bad for public health, bad for birthing people and bad for families.”

Wolf vowed to stop any similar restrictions, saying: “Texas has effectively banned abortions. I won’t let that happen here in Pennsylvania. … My veto is ready.”

That hasn’t stopped conservative lawmakers from proposing new laws that could make it harder to get an abortion.

This week, Rep. Timothy Bonner, R-Mercer, issued a memo proposing a new law to require pain medication for abortions after 12 weeks. While the proposed text contains few specifics, Bonner characterized the proposal as an uncontroversial effort to prevent pain, no matter where his colleagues stand on abortion itself.

A similar effort passed in Utah in 2016, provoking concern from medical experts and pro-abortion activists who said supporters’ claims were medically unproven. That law took effect at 20 weeks, making Bonner’s plan more restrictive.

Other lawmakers have targeted university research this summer. Late last month, four senators — Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford, Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-Venango, Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, and Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair — said they would require a state investigation into the University of Pittsburgh’s practices involving fetal tissue.

The senators said Pitt researchers are “harvesting body parts from live and aborted babies,” echoing prior claims by conservative and anti-abortion groups. Pitt researchers have dismissed the claims and have defended the longstanding practice of tissue research as integral to preventing childhood disease.

Anti-abortion activists have used legislative majorities and a friendly judiciary in other states to pass a patchwork of restrictions, sometimes making it prohibitively difficult to get the treatment. The new Texas law does not make it a criminal offense to get an abortion, but allows nearly anyone to file a civil lawsuit against those who conduct or assist in getting one after six weeks’ gestation. Activists have described it as one of the most restrictive abortion laws yet passed in the United States.

Lawmakers have proposed similarly tough laws in Pennsylvania in recent years, though none precisely like that in Texas.

In May, a so-called “heartbeat bill” that would ban many abortions made it through a House committee in a party-line vote, with Rep. John Hershey, R-Juniata, Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Bradford, and Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, in favor. Dozens of lawmakers co-sponsored the bill, which didn’t make it to a floor vote.

While Wolf’s veto could stop most such efforts from passing, Republican candidates seeking to replace him after 2022 have expressed support for stricter laws. Nearly every major GOP gubernatorial candidate backed the Texas law or other restrictions, WHYY reported this week.

Trump casts a shadow in GOP race

Former president Donald Trump looms large in Pennsylvania’s Senate election, as he spars with outgoing Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and lends support to one of the candidates seeking to take Toomey’s seat.

Last week, Trump endorsed Sean Parnell, the GOP Senate hopeful who lost a suburban Pittsburgh U.S. House race in 2020. Most of the other candidates seeking the party’s Senate nomination have tied themselves closely to Trump’s image.

Since then, Trump has openly fought Toomey, who is set to step down next year.

In a TV appearance last week, Toomey called Trump’s post-election behavior “completely unacceptable” and urged Republicans not to nominate him if he runs in 2024. Trump responded Tuesday by calling Toomey a “terrible representative for both Pennsylvania and the United States.”

Republican candidates clearly see a benefit in seeking Trump’s support. An August poll by Franklin & Marshall College found that nearly half of Pennsylvania Republicans identify with the party’s “Trump faction.”

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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