John Finnerty: New abortion battle seems unlikely in Pennsylvania

Donald Trump’s election and his anticipated nomination of anti-abortion justices to the U.S. Supreme Court are fueling attempts to restrict the procedure across the country.

Even so, with an abortion rights supporter in the governor’s mansion, it’s unclear how much enthusiasm lawmakers will have for going to war over abortion in the coming year.

Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria County, was one of the lead sponsors of a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. It passed the House six months ago but stalled in the Senate without a vote.

Even as an impassioned, anti-abortion advocate, Barbin said it probably would be a mistake for lawmakers to pass a bill that will only get vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Barbin, who represents a Democrat-heavy county that went for Trump, said lawmakers should focus on what drove voters to the polls in November — such as the economy.

Even so, conservatives throughout the country are hoping to capitalize on the momentum from Trump’s victory. Florida passed a law requiring anyone who counsels a woman about an abortion to provide an explanation of the procedure and possible alternatives.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday sued to block the rule. It says the law “compels private, noncommercial speakers without medical expertise to deliver a state-mandated speech.”

Texas moved to require the burial or cremation of fetal remains — a law that is also being challenged.

While Pennsylvania’s 20-week abortion ban didn’t pass, a similar measure passed in Ohio earlier this month. Gov. John Kasich vetoed a bill banning abortions of a fetus with a detectable heartbeat, but he allowed the 20-week standard to become law.

All of these efforts come as the number of abortions reaches historic lows nationally and locally.

In 2014, there were 32,000 abortions in Pennsylvania, half the number reported in 1980. Nationally the number peaked in 1990 at 1.4 million and it has since fallen nearly in half, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Pennsylvania, about 8 in 10 abortions take place in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Fewer than 1 in 100 take place after 20 weeks, according to the Department of Health.

The state’s 1989 law restricting abortion was the first major attempt to rein in rights spelled out by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Roe v. Wade opinion in 1973.

Pennsylvania’s rules led to another landmark case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the justices affirmed that women have abortion rights but opened the door for states to enforce limits.

More recently, the horrific crimes of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell reinforced some of the worst fears that abortion foes say they’ve had about the practices in abortion clinics. Gosnell was sentenced to three life sentences in 2013 for killing three babies born alive at his clinic.

(John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at

This Week's Circulars