Q+A: Restricting Abortions in Pennsylvania

PA State Capitol
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. (Photo credit: Kumar Appaiah / flickr)

HB 1948, a bill that would restrict abortions in Pennsylvania, is in limbo today as it awaits a final vote in the state House of Representatives.

The bill would ban most abortions after 20 weeks and restrict the use of dilation and extraction, a procedure used to end a second-trimester pregnancy. Opponents say that such a law would be the strictest of its kind in the country and put women’s health in danger.

David S. Cohen, JD, a professor in the Kline School of Law and co-author of “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism,” weighs in on what is at stake and why he believes the law would be unconstitutional.

What are the main goals of the new bill?
The stated goals are to stop abortion providers from performing a particular abortion procedure that opponents think is especially cruel (dilation and evacuation) and to stop abortions after the point at which fetuses can feel pain (20 weeks). However, the abortion procedure is one of the most common and safest procedures for second-trimester abortions and there’s no medically-sound evidence that fetuses can feel pain. It is abundantly clear then that the main goal of the new bill is to end abortion in Pennsylvania after the end of the first trimester, something that is unarguably unconstitutional.

Currently, few abortions are performed after the 20-week period. Would cutting off abortions at 20 weeks instead of 24 make much of a difference for women?
It would make a huge difference for the relatively small number of women who have abortions after 20 weeks. Women who have abortions at that point of pregnancy tend to do so because they have a late-diagnosed fetal or maternal complication. Or they have had particular trouble finding the money to have an abortion (since Pennsylvania does not pay for abortions for low-income women on Medicaid or medical assistance); or they have other mental or physical problems that caused them to delay deciding or acting on their decision to have an abortion. These are some of the most vulnerable women in society, and this law would cut off their access to abortion and force them into carrying their pregnancy to term.

What are dilation and evacuation abortions? What would be the implications if they are restricted?
Dilation and evacuation is the most common and safest form of second-trimester abortion. It is also used in some first-trimester abortions. Like almost any medical procedure, to a layperson, it would seem gross if described in full detail. But that’s true of bowel reconstruction, kidney surgery, heart transplants, etc. There’s a reason most people don’t talk about the details of medical procedures over dinner. Regardless, the procedure is safe and preferred by most abortion doctors for a variety of reasons. If it were restricted, the doctor would have to perform a less safe, less common procedure that would put women’s health and safety at risk. Or they wouldn’t do the procedure at all, making the woman’s constitutional right to abortion meaningless.

 Planned Parenthood spokespeople have called this proposed legislation the most “restrictive abortion law in the country.” Do you agree with that?
I don’t think where this law ranks among the host of restrictive provisions throughout the country matters. What matters is that it is highly restrictive and unconstitutional, as are many of the laws that states like Florida, Texas, Indiana, and a number of others have passed in the past few years.

 If this bill becomes a law, what happens next?
The law will certainly be challenged in state or federal court, and probably immediately upon going into effect. The Supreme Court has been as clear as day that laws that prohibit abortion before viability (about 24 weeks) are unconstitutional.  It has also been clear that a ban on this particular procedure is likely unconstitutional. In other words, both of these provisions are almost certain to be found unconstitutional, which means that Pennsylvania legislators are wasting their time and taxpayers’ dollars on this bill.

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