The U.S. Supreme Court’s biggest abortion ruling in decades might signal changes for the Keystone State.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 June 27 that a Texas law requiring abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory or outpatient surgical centers was medically unnecessary and unconstitutionally limited a woman’s ability to receive an abortion. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, announced his plans to introduce legislation repealing Pennsylvania Act 122 of 2011, a similar but limited version of the Texas law.
“Amid a nationwide attack on those who seek and provide abortions, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Constitution, and for that we should all be thankful. Abortion is a legal, constitutionally protected right that should be available to all women,” Leach said in a statement. “Pennsylvania’s abortion laws are forcing women and their families into desperate, life-threatening situations in which they must choose between the law, their health and their constitutional rights. We should be expanding access to reproductive health services, not closing clinics.”
After Texas passed its law in 2013, the number of abortion clinics in the state dropped from 41 in 2012 to less than 20 in 2015. Pennsylvania — which has less than half as many residents as Texas — has 19 abortion clinics.
Kim Everett, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, said while the Supreme Court decision was only about the Texas law, the decision “paves the way” for other states with ambulatory surgical facility requirements to repeal their similar laws.
“This is a first step and the Supreme Court has made it clear that politicians cannot pass laws to block access to safe, legal abortion,” Everett said in an email. “A person’s right to make their own decisions about abortion should not depend on who they are or what state they live in. Any state like Pennsylvania that has a similar law will need to evaluate all options in light of this decision and do everything in their power to fight for women’s access to abortion in their state.”
While both Texas and Pennsylvania law required abortion clinics to maintain the same standards as ambulatory or outpatient surgical centers, Texas’ law required doctors at clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Pennsylvania’s does not.
Twenty-two other states require abortion clinics to become certified as ambulatory surgical centers. Ten states require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.
Mary Lou Gartner, political director of the Dormont, Pennsylvania-based organization People Concerned for the Unborn Child, said Pennsylvania’s and Texas’ laws are about safety.
“Basically, the Texas law is about the safety of women,” Gartner said. “All other ambulatory surgical centers maintain health and safety standards. Why don’t [abortion clinics] have to?”
The Supreme Court ruled the surgical-center requirement provided “few, if any, health benefits for women” and instead created a “substantial obstacle” for women seeking abortions, placing an “undue burden” on their right to seek one. The majority of the court argued many of the surgical center requirements — such as regulating air pressure and enforcing a one-way traffic pattern through the facility — were “inappropriate as applied to surgical abortions.”
Susan Frietsche, a senior staff attorney for the Women’s Law Project who wrote a legal brief on the Texas law, said the Pennsylvania and Texas laws “regulate abortion care more heavily than is medically warranted.”
“The regulations don’t improve patient care — they require costly construction and renovation that most facilities have trouble affording,” Frietsche said. “For example, both sets of regulations have detailed requirements for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems; for monitoring humidity in the facility; for ceiling, wall and floor finishes and for the location and specifications of sinks. None of these expensive requirements will have any impact at all on the safety of abortion care.”
Both the Pennsylvanian and Texan laws came after a grand jury investigation of Kermit Gosnell, who ran an abortion clinic called the Women’s Medical Society in West Philadelphia for more than three decades. The FBI and the Pennsylvania Department of Health found urine-splattered walls and cats roaming the clinic during a 2010 raid, and a judge sentenced Gosnell to life in prison for killing three infants born alive in 2013.
Gartner said she doesn’t think Leach’s proposed bill will pass, partially due to the Gosnell case’s connection to the state.
“I don’t think it will get very far,” Gartner said. “It’s not going to get through the House [of Representatives] or Senate, especially since Gosnell happened [in Pennsylvania].”
Frietsche said she hopes legislators stop using Gosnell’s story “to try to justify laws that are so burdensome that they threaten to close down safe providers.”
“I think our brief on behalf of 10 Pennsylvania abortion providers, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited in her concurring opinion, made a convincing case that if you are trying to shut down marginal or criminal practitioners, the worst thing you can do is close down safe, responsible providers,” Frietsche said.
Evert said the Supreme Court decision tells lawmakers they cannot pass laws which ultimately “attempt to punish women by blocking access to safe abortion.”
“There have been devastating consequences for women who are forced to travel hundreds of miles, cross state lines and wait weeks to get an abortion, if they can at all,” Evertt said. “This has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, who already face systemic barriers in accessing quality health care.”
On June 30, Pennsylvania’s Women’s Health Caucus held a press conference on the necessity of repealing the 2011 law. During his appearance at the event, State Rep. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks, said he is planning to introduce House legislation similar to Leach’s.
“This is an important victory for all women and now is the time to fix the same unconstitutional law in Pennsylvania,” Santarsiero said. “As a husband and a father of a daughter, I am committed to protecting the constitutional right of women to make their own medical decisions in consultation with their doctor.”
State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, serves as the House’s WHC co-chairman and argued in his speech that the Supreme Court ruling “should also put the brakes on” House Bill 1948.
That bill, proposed by State Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, would move the ban on abortions from 24 weeks to 20 weeks after conception, as well as reduce the use of dilation-and-evacuation procedures, which entails removing a fetus from a uterus by dilating the pregnant woman’s cervix. The House passed Rapp’s bill June 21, and it is currently awaiting a vote in the Senate.
“We know, and have known for some time, that these [restrictive] bills do nothing to insure women’s health,” Frankel said. “In fact, they often create great difficulty for women.”
Gartner said PCUC and other pro-life advocates will continue to participate in pro-life demonstrations and events despite growing pressure from the opposition.
“We’re going to continue what we’ve been doing for 43 years,” Gartner said. “We’re not going to let up.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.