Monday press conference wins the day on controversial Pa. abortion bill; vote postponed

By Charles Thompson
Original Article

Outraged by a fast-tracked debate on new abortion restrictions, Pennsylvania abortion rights advocates struck back Monday, hosting a poignant press conference spotlighting voices of Moms who have made difficult, medically informed decisions to abort.

Within hours, it appeared those mothers had won the day, as leaders of the House Republican majority quietly called off an anticipated floor debate on the bill, apparently for the week.

That postponement means the bill - which had easily survived a Democrat-backed motion to postpone last week - will not receive any floor action in the General Assembly until at least next month.

Whether it resurfaces then seemed uncertain Monday afternoon.

The proposed House Bill 1948 would ban abortions - outside of cases of medical urgency for the mother - after 20 weeks, and it would also abolish the dilation and evacuation technique that doctors say is one of the safest ways to perform an abortion in the second trimester.

The bill's supporters have characterized it as a chance to realign the state's law with medical advances in neonatal care, and to curtail use of a technique anti-abortion activists have characterized as "dismemberment abortion."

All three of the mothers speaking Monday said they faced situations where - if terms of the controversial House Bill 1948 were in effect - they would have lost the ability to make what they saw as the best decisions for their families.

Flanked by Gov Tom Wolf and Cecille Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, they said they resented the fact some Pennsylvania politicians now want to close that option off.

Kelsey Williams of Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County, said she had a dilation and evacuation procedure in February, after she and her husband learned at a 20-week ultrasound their child had deformities that were incompatible with life.

When a friend told her about the House bill earlier this month, "I couldn't think straight," Williams said. "I was sick to my stomach and it made me sweat to think that my home state that I'm so proud of, wanted to do this to me, and to other women, and to families."

Abortion rights advocates also have decried the fact that the bill went straight from Pro-Life Caucus drafting tables to the precipice of a House vote without a public hearing on its medical implications.

To help make that point Monday, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, an anesthesiologist-turned-politican, spoke at Monday's opposition rally to the problems posed by lowering the elective abortion threshold to 20 weeks.

It is at 18-to-20 weeks of pregnancy, Dr. Arkoosh noted, when major diagnostic ultrasounds occur that often reveal the first signs of fetal deformities.

Under the terms of this bill, Arkoosh said women could be "forced into a decision (to abort) in a time frame that they could not possibly get appropriate consultation with experts...

"Understand," Arkoosh appealed to lawmakers, "that calling for a 20-week abortion ban does not in any way fit with how the practice of obstetrics is carried out."

The net effect of Monday's press conference was to present a side of the debate that abortion rights advocates like Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny County, have argued abortion opponents don't want to hear.

As it happened, the press conference won the news cycle and the day.

First, the House Appropriations Committee postponed scheduled action on the bill.

After a round of mid-afternoon caucuses, spokesman for the majority House Republicans Steve Miskin said it appeared unlikely the bill would be brought up for a floor vote this week.

Miskin cited the need to devote floor time to other issues in this last week before a break for the primary elections.

Some House GOP members privately acknowledged there has been pushback within the caucus in the last week about bringing up such a hot button issue in the absence of any guarantee that the state Senate would even act on it.

Theories have abounded in recent days as to why the abortion bill was coming up now in the first place, in the face of a promised veto by Wolf.

One House source who was not authorized to speak publicly said Pro-Life Caucus members were promised a debate in exchange for dropping efforts to defund state aid to Planned Parenthood during the protected budget impasse.

But according to members, it now presents a case where many lawmakers may want to support something, but just not now, in the heat of an election season.

The mothers who spoke out Monday expressed hope the reprieve will work in their favor, arguing the more time they have to make their case, the harder it will be for HB 1948's proponents to carry the day.

"I think minds can be changed," said Erica Goldblatt Hyatt, a mother from Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County, who has also gone through a second-trimester dilation and evacuation procedure.

Hyatt said her state representative, Tom Murt, rescinded his co-sponsorship of the bill in recent days after hearing directly from her and other women. Attempts to reach Murt Monday were not successful.

"I think it's a matter of personal narrative. Actually reaching out to people and having them truly listen, which seems rare in politics these days. But seeing that our efforts have at least elicited some sort of action means that I think there is more to come," Hyatt Goldblatt said.

"I don't think that this is going to be such an easy vote."

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