PHILADELPHIA – Women across Philadelphia and the country have been demonstrating for months. Initially, to protect their right to privacy and their bodies, then after the Dobbs decision to demand that right be recognized. Their cries have filled the halls of power and city streets from coast to coast, yet the Christian Nationalist Right continues its long-predicted storm of insanity and cruelty through stolen power.
The Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature have been trying to pass anti-abortion legislation for years, repeatedly being vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf. After years of playing on the fears and sympathy of various groups, including people with disabilities, Republicans devised a novel tactic to ram through their anti-choice and authoritarian agenda via constitutional amendments.
“I’m incredibly disappointed that Pennsylvania Republicans continue to introduce legislation for constitutional amendments in attempt after attempt to circumvent the legislative process and turn a blind eye to the core purpose of a three-pronged government,” Senator Maria Collett (D-Montgomery/Bucks) voted against SB 106. “The constitutional amendment process is sacred and meant to be an exception, not the rule. But it has become clear that this is the only way for Republicans to get wildly unpopular initiatives passed.”
It is easier to pass constitutional amendments in Pennsylvania than in most other states. In Pennsylvania, constitutional amendments must pass by a simple majority in two consecutive sessions and then be approved by a majority of voters in a primary or general election.
“It may seem like constitutional amendments would be the most democratic means of assessing the people’s will. The reality is that voter participation in the amendment process is lower than in nearly all other elections because Republicans continue to place amendments on the ballot in primary elections, which have lower turnout,” said Sen. Collet. “Particularly among Independent and third-party voters, young voters, and voters of color, republicans have contributed to this and now seek to take advantage of this in the most dangerous way possible.”
In a late-night blitz, the Senate Rules Committee waved a rule banning votes after 11 pm before it moved on and passed State Senate Bill 106 along party lines out of committee.
SB106 is multiple formerly separate constitutional amendments pooled together into a single bill to confuse the voters who will have to decide its fate, the fate of women, and our democracy in Pennsylvania.
“If the amendment is adopted in Pennsylvania, it would prohibit using public money to pay for abortions, restrict access to abortions, and permit voter ID as a means of voter suppression. This amendment threatens basic healthcare for women and families. It disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of registered voters, disproportionately harming low-income individuals and people of color,” said Sen. Art Haywood (D).
The Bill included provisions to create a path to ban abortion in the State by claiming that the PA constitution does not protect abortion rights, circumventing State Court precedence. The bill also prohibits public funds from supporting abortion care in Pennsylvania.
“Currently, the abortion procedure is legal in PA, and approval of this amendment will not change that initially. It will open the door for the Legislature to make it illegal through other measures, including through the governor. It also can restrict access to contraception and pills that prevent pregnancy,” said Representative Darisha Parker(D) 198th Dist.
“This legislation would require a woman who can’t afford an abortion to give birth. This mandate is worse than communism,” said Sen. Art Haywood (D), Philadelphia
SB 106 also calls for voter ID requirements, an Arizona-style system for election audits based on the big lie, gubernatorial candidates to choose their Lieutenant Governor, and a measure that allows the Legislature to disapprove regulation without executive oversight or gubernatorial veto.
“Disapproving regulations is a means for the legislature to overturn the power of the Governor to make rules for government programs: this provision is intended to take power from a Democratic governor to run the government and move it to the GOP legislature,” said Sen. Haywood. “To be clear, a regulation can only exist if it is executing something already authorized by a legislative statute. The GOP is complaining about statutes the legislature passed that let the Governor do things they don’t like, and now they cannot pass another statute to reverse it, because it will be vetoed. The Regulatory Review Act gives the legislative oversight to review how a proposed regulation executes a legislative statute and the opportunity to oppose it without a veto. This used to be treated as a formality until Governor Wolf’s administration, when the GOP legislature began to use and manipulate the regulatory review process as a back-handed way of reversing a law by usurping the executive branch’s power to execute it.”
Republicans denied Democratic amendments to the bill by tabling the amendments and limiting debate on the relevant issues.
Rep. Matt Bradford (D), Montgomery County, demanded Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R), Centre county defend the amendment’s second clause regarding abortion in PA; Benninghoff refused.
“You have to have the intellectual honesty and integrity to defend what you’re doing,” said Rep. Bradford.
Rep. Emily Kinkead (D), Allegheny, told Republican members that claimed the amendment on abortion wouldn’t change anything about existing abortion rights in Pennsylvania. “Yes, it does not immediately ban abortion, but it is setting up a pathway.”
“We are not supposed to be amending our constitution to remove rights from Pennsylvanians,” Kinkead said. “The constitution protects our rights. It doesn’t deny us our rights.”
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D), Philadelphia, questioned whether Republicans would even accept the referendum results.
“Sixty-four members of the Republican party signed a letter to throw out the results of the presidential election, but now you trust the voters,” Rep. Kenyatta quipped.
It was approved 28-22 along party lines in the Senate and moved to the House of Representatives, where Republicans approved the Bill to Amend the PA Constitution 107 to 92 along party lines.
This was round one for the draconian set of amendments. The Republican Legislature must pass the same bill in the next session. Then it must be publicly advertised before it goes on the ballot to be ratified by the voters.
“These constitutional amendments the majority party plans to run again next session are meant to deny the Governor veto power,” said Rep. Parker. “These are issues we should be debating on the house floor, but they know Gov. Wolf will not sign these restrictive measures, so they’re trying to circumvent the system by creating these ballot questions.”
State Senate Democrats are working on a bill that counters this legislation and the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs by codifying Roe at the state level.
“Codifying Roe will go a long way to protect the right to determine our bodily autonomy here in the Commonwealth. Currently, the right to make decisions about our bodies is under threat because extremists refuse to accept the reality that abortion is a necessary and vital health care procedure,” said Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D-Montgomery/Delaware). “We must do all we can to protect and expand access, and this legislation is the first step.”
“Instead of voting to pass an overdue budget, the majority party called a late-night committee meeting to add an abortion ban, by amendment, to an already-troubling bill (SB 106) to restrict voting rights through constitutional amendments,” Said Sen. Collet. “The only way to keep these and other unpopular policies from sneaking onto a future primary ballot is by creating a new majority in the General Assembly, one that will stop this nonsense and get to work passing legislation that reflects your priorities.”
“Philadelphians should support organizations like Turn PA Blue and Planned Parenthood, who are dedicated to electing pro-choice candidates across Pennsylvania, or organizations dedicated to protecting voting rights, like the Committee of Seventy and the League of Women Voters,” said Sen. Haywood.