Pennsylvania governor's race comes with high stakes for abortion policy

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Doug Mastriano and Josh Shapiro.
Doug Mastriano, left, and Josh Shapiro. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Matt Rourke/AP)

BIG RUN, Pa. — Abortion rights have taken center stage in the race for Pennsylvania’s next governor amid expectations that the Supreme Court is set to repeal Roe v. Wade this summer.

On Wednesday, state Sen. Doug Mastriano rolled into the Big Run Event Center northeast of Pittsburgh as the frontrunner in the crowded field for next week’s Republican primary. And a major part of his pitch to voters here was his uncompromising stance on abortion.

“There’s no other greater issue we’re facing in our lifetime than right-to-life,“ Mastriano said. “Every baby deserves a right to life. Every baby.”

Mastriano has staked out a strict position on abortion, essentially promising to ban the procedure in the state. At a recent debate, he said he would not allow exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.

Shortly after taking office in 2019, Mastriano introduced a bill that would have banned abortion after six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. The bill never reached the desk of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is being term-limited out of office, but Mastriano said at the time that he was “going to fight this until my dying breath.”

State Sen. Doug Mastriano speaks to voters at a campaign stop.
Mastriano at a campaign stop in Portersville, Pa., on Tuesday. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Jenna Ellis, who worked for former President Donald Trump’s legal team, has been campaigning for Mastriano and spoke before him at the Big Run event. Ellis devoted her remarks to her belief that religion and the law are intertwined, stating that it is “so completely antithetical to our U.S. Constitution” for Democrats in Congress to attempt to pass a bill guaranteeing abortion rights.

“Congress actually doesn’t have the power constitutionally or just morally — because God’s moral law doesn’t change — to say that yes, a woman can choose to abort an unborn child and to call that child not valuable, because God calls that child valuable,” Ellis said. “That’s what it means to live in a Christian nation.”

Ellis also tied abortion to gay marriage, saying conservatives need to stop making “moral exceptions.” Gay marriage was legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court in 2015.

“We want to draw all of these arbitrary lines and say, you know, ‘It’s OK that we have same-sex marriage, it’s OK that we have abortion, it’s OK that we’ll just try to draw in and carve out these moral exceptions for things because we don’t want to be called bigots and homophobes and all of these terrible names.’ I’ve been called all of them, and I really don’t care, because God calls me his own,” Ellis said to applause.

Jenna Ellis speaking at a podium.
Jenna Ellis, seen with members of President Trump’s legal team, speaking at a news conference in November 2020. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Mastriano is running to the right of most of his competitors in the GOP primary. He was present at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, and was later subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the events surrounding the violence that followed.

Although he seldom talks about his involvement in the protest that preceded the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, he insisted at a debate last month that he is in no legal jeopardy stemming from his presence there.

And Mastriano has repeatedly indulged in debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, casting doubts on Joe Biden’s victory and promoting partisan “audits” of votes in other states.

His positions are concerning to some Republicans in the state who worry he would prove unelectable in a general election.

There have reportedly been efforts among Republicans to coalesce around one of the eight other candidates running for the GOP nomination, but none have yet borne fruit, leaving Mastriano as the frontrunner with just days to go until the primary. And Trump, who could help clear the field for any of the candidates, has so far declined to endorse anyone in the race.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Attorney General Josh Shapiro — running unopposed for his party’s nomination — was also raising the issue of abortion at an event in Clarion, Pa.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Shapiro at a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa., on April 4. (Matt Rourke/AP)

“It is quite clear to me that after what we learned from the Supreme Court a couple weeks ago, that the battle over the freedom to make decisions over your own body is coming back to the states,” Shapiro said at Clarion River Brewing Company a few hours before Mastriano’s event.

Shapiro continued to lean into his stance on abortion rights, despite speaking in a county where Trump won 75% of the vote in 2020: “It is also clear to me that the next governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will have a bill on his desk that outright bans abortion. Every one of my opponents will sign that bill into law. I will veto it.”

Speaking to Yahoo News after the event, Shapiro said protecting abortion access is an issue that resonates across the state, from its Democratic major cities to Republican bastions like Clarion.

“What I can see is a real energy around the issue wherever I go, from rural communities like this, that historically have voted overwhelmingly Republican, to the city of Philadelphia,” he said.

With no primary opponent, Shapiro’s campaign has begun running television ads highlighting Mastriano’s record and statements on abortion.

A crowd cheers during a rally held by Pennsylvania Democrats at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
A rally held by Pennsylvania Democrats at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on May 6. (Heather Khalifa/Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

“I think it’s pretty clear he’s going to be the nominee,” Shapiro said of Mastriano when asked about the ads. “He’s ahead in every single poll, ahead by a comfortable margin, and we think there’s a clear contrast in this race and we want to make sure we’re out in front highlighting those differences and getting a jump on the general election.”

Although Pennsylvania is not among the states that would automatically ban abortion following a Roe repeal, it still has a number of laws that restrict access to the procedure. Pointing to those restrictions, Elicia Gonzales, the director of the Abortion Liberation Fund of PA, said Pennsylvania has “been operating as a post-Roe state since the 1980s.”

Among the restrictions is a ban on using Medicaid to pay for abortions, meaning low-income residents cannot use their insurance to pay for the procedure except in limited circumstances. There is also a 24-hour waiting period before a patient can receive an abortion, as well as mandatory counseling. And minors in Pennsylvania need parental consent before obtaining an abortion.

Abortion providers say other restrictions make it difficult to keep clinics open, which has resulted in Pennsylvanians driving long distances to obtain the procedure.

In recent years, Republicans in the state Legislature have tried to pass a number of other abortion restrictions, which have in turn been vetoed by Wolf.

“Gov. Wolf has been an incredible supporter,” Signe Espinosa, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania, told Yahoo News. “I think Josh Shapiro’s track record speaks for itself. He’s somebody we’re really excited about because I think he’s not only going to be reactive but proactive when it comes to supporting the needs of Pennsylvanian women’s health care.”

An April poll from Franklin & Marshall College found that 31% of Pennsylvanians said abortion should be legal under any circumstances, up from 18% when it began polling the issue in 2009. That same survey found that 53% said it should be legal in certain circumstances, and 16% said it should be illegal in all circumstances.

Another looming threat for abortion access in the state is an attempt by Republicans to move forward with an amendment to the state Constitution that would “protect the life of every unborn child from conception to birth, to the extent permitted by the Federal Constitution.”

Espinosa called it “the most extreme proposal we’ve seen in Pennsylvania,” stating that she’s concerned it could have effects on contraception and miscarriage care. As an amendment to the state Constitution, it would not be subject to a veto and would instead go to the ballot for approval by voters.

Protesters outside Philadelphia’s federal courthouse.
Protesters outside Philadelphia’s federal courthouse on May 3 after a leaked draft opinion indicated the Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Heather Khalifa/Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

“There will be a political price to pay for those that peddle that amendment forward,” Shapiro said when asked about the possibility of Republicans putting the amendment on the ballot. “I will object to it. I will use every bit of power I have to stop that from going forward, and we actually have a considerable amount of power and authority in that area. The people who are pushing an outright abortion ban are wildly out of touch with where Pennsylvania is, and there will be a political price that they will pay with their constituents by going forward with that.”

Either way, advocates in the state say they are preparing for the overturn of Roe and are ready to fight laws restricting abortion there.

“Folks are really bracing for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, but what we really are hoping is that they stay grounded in knowing that no matter what happens in the final decision, that people will need abortions, and people will have abortions,” Gonzales said. “And just to remember that abortion is older than this country and older than its courts.”

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