Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack issued a mea culpa in writing in Philly.com for his vote on a restrictive abortion law in 2011. Its purpose seems to be multi-faceted: An admission of an error, a warning, and a call to action. The apology and subsequent argument he presents introduces a shit-show of conundrums and a perfect storm of an excuse for his regrettable vote in 2011.
In 2010, both sides of the abortion debate were horrified by a one-word nightmare: Gosnell. The Pennsylvania abortion doctor was convicted of murdering infants in illegal abortion procedures, endangering women in unsafe abortion procedures, and allegedly ran a “pill mill” for opiate painkiller prescriptions. None of this is good, to say the least. His arrest and conviction set the anti-choice advocates ablaze with even more abortion vilification. One abortion doctor acting illegally, recklessly and criminally was enough to tarnish the thousands of abortion doctors, clinics and the very Constitutional Amendment securing our right to choice. In the wake of Dr. Gosnell, a slew of TRAP laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers) hit states, like Act 122, the piece of legislation Stack regrettably voted in favor of. The law requires abortion clinics to be registered as ambulatory surgical facilities, thereby severely restricting the functionality of many clinics throughout the state. The act was introduced in direct response to Dr. Gosnell, whose clinic was in West Philadelphia, and implied its purpose was to protect women’s health. In reality, TRAP laws are drafted to appear to regulate women’s healthcare, when in effect they put women’s health and lives at risk by creating nearly impossible requirements for clinics to operate, forcing most clinics that can’t comply to close. Any piece of legislation that puts an unnecessary burden on abortion clinics to function flies in the face of the idea to help keep women safe. But the emotional reaction to Dr. Gosnell put pro-choice citizens and legislators in an unattractive position. It was difficult to be proudly pro-choice, especially in Pennsylvania, without conjuring the very bad apple that was one abortion doctor.
While this is not an excuse for misrepresenting state legislation, it is the excuse Stack uses to defend his vote. He had supported amendments submitted by Planned Parenthood to Act 122, but they all failed to pass in the Republican-dominated state Senate. It remains unclear why Stack voted on Act 122 despite having favored its amendments, and the explanation in the piece was simply to vote to protect women’s health. Whether the repercussions of vote were fully clear to Stack remains in question. But the emotional response to Dr. Gosnell, and the fact that the Act was couched in the argument that it “helps women” is obvious.
I don’t blame Stack entirely. In 2011, I hadn’t heard of the term TRAP laws. I had a knee-jerk emotional reaction to the phrase “protecting women’s health.” Perhaps had I read the explanation of Act 122 I may have recognized a deliberate attempt to shutter abortion clinics by the anti-choice state majority. But perhaps not. The language appears to be reasonable, albeit emotional, and doesn’t question the validity of our Constitutional right to choice. “Comprehensive regulation of abortion facilities reasonably serves the Commonwealth’s substantial interests in protecting the health, safety and welfare of the general public.” It’s arguably understandable why Stack voted in favor.
But his regret is far mote understandable, since our country’s Supreme Court had to strike down TRAP laws in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the same laws that passed in Pennsylvania. Stack knows now that his vote was, in fact, unconstitutional. So the fact that the state has introduced another TRAP law bill, HB 1948, the awareness exists for lawmakers to make an informed vote rather than an emotional one.
But this is Pennsylvania we are talking about. Even with a promise to veto HB 1948 by the governor, the Republicans hold the two-thirds majority to override a gubernatorial veto. Lest anyone think local and state politics are not important, or sit out mid-term elections, these are the elections that very well may determine who casts a vote in favor of choice or against it.