For one Pittsburgh-area couple, the politics of a 20-week abortion ban are personal

Gov. Wolf vetoed Senate Bill 3 on Monday — but the debate is far from over.

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

Ken Marshall / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

In spring 2016, Nicole’s water broke 20 weeks and six days into her pregnancy.

She had developed an infection in her birth canal, and doctors told Nicole and her husband, John, there was a good chance the infection would spread and that she could become septic, which can lead to organ failure and death.

Doctors presented the Gibsonia couple, who are in their early 30s, with three options: Nicole could undergo dilation and evacuation, a surgical procedure to end the pregnancy; doctors could induce labor to deliver a baby who wouldn’t be able to live outside the womb; or they could wait and see what happened.

“We knew that whatever happened, we were an entire month away from viability,” Nicole said. “As much as we’d like to bring our baby home, we knew it wasn’t going to happen.”

The couple, who asked The Incline to withhold their last name over privacy concerns, chose induction, which was considered a termination of the pregnancy, meaning Nicole had to sign papers consenting to an abortion. Nicole delivered a baby girl, who lived for five minutes.

Nicole and John said their experience would have been very different if Senate Bill 3, or the virtually identical House Bill 1948, was Pennsylvania law. The legislation, which passed the Pa. House in February and Senate in December, proposed to ban abortions after 20 weeks and impose criminal penalties on doctors who perform the dilation and evacuation (D&E) procedure.

But despite passage in both chambers, it’s unlikely Senate Bill 3 will become law in the commonwealth. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday vetoed the bill, which could be resurrected if two-thirds of each chamber vote to override his decision. That bar, at this point, appears too high to surmount.

Proponents of the bill say banning these abortions and the D&E procedure — which they refer to as “dismemberment abortion,” a phrase not recognized by the medical community — is the humane, moral thing to do because of advances in fetal viability.

“There are those who would take […] life away on a whim or out of convenience,” said state Rep. Rick Saccone, a conservative Republican vying for the congressional seat previously held by Tim Murphy, on the House floor in December.

Republican state Rep. Judy Ward told her colleagues that same day, “If you have any conscience, the only vote you can make is a yes vote.”

But medical professionals and organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Pennsylvania Medical Society and Physicians for Reproductive Health strongly opposed the legislation. In a letter to House representatives, Dr. Beatrice Chen, director of family planning at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, wrote that House Bill 1948 “inserts politicians squarely between doctors and our patients, forcing physicians to abandon our own ethics and good practice and provide lesser care, face criminal penalties, or deny women the care they need.”

Already at risk of widespread infection, Nicole hemorrhaged and suffered significant blood volume loss after being induced — something she knew was possible by choosing that option over a D&E. Nicole then underwent emergency surgery and recovered after spending time in intensive care.

Today, Nicole and John are 30 weeks into another pregnancy — part of which, they said, has been spent in anxious fear that Senate Bill 3 would pass, leaving Nicole unable to access life-saving medical care if something went wrong again during that 20-to-24-week period.

In fact, Senate Bill 3 provides just one vague exemption from the 20-week ban: “If a physician reasonably believes that it is necessary to prevent either the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the woman.”

Nicole said she wondered: What is considered life-threatening, and who makes that decision in the moment?

Changed minds and votes

Senate Bill 3’s path from introduction in the Pa. General Assembly to Wolf’s veto spanned a year.

It passed the Senate 32-18 in February with three Republicans voting no and one Democrat — Allegheny County’s Jim Brewster — voting yes.

Like the bill representatives approved in 2016, the Senate’s 20-week abortion ban easily passed the House in December. But this time around, fewer yeas came from Democrats. Several Pittsburgh-area lawmakers were among those who went from yes to no on the ban, including Dom Costa, Dan Deasy, Adam Ravenstahl and Harry Readshaw. Both Costa and Ravenstahl are facing 2018 primary challengers from the left.

Between the two votes, Costa said he spoke to friends who are doctors and learned “some of the supposed expert opinions” in favor of the 20-week ban were “more rhetoric than truth.” He was also touched, he told The Incline, by the remarks of state Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican who voted against SB3 after speaking about her personal experience losing a child.

Shortly before Costa cast his no vote, he was visited by a woman who had lost a pregnancy, as well as by a Planned Parenthood representative and a doctor. Following the several-hour debate on Dec. 12, Costa received an email he described as heart-breaking from the woman.

It read in part: “I am moved to tears right now, writing this note to thank you for your no vote; you made a real difference in the lives of women of the Commonwealth.”

Jessica Semler, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, organized nearly 20 such meetings with lawmakers and their staff over the past year and called them “some of the most gratifying lobby visits I’ve done.”

Because there were no hearings on Senate Bill 3 in either chamber, the visits provided women and doctors with an opportunity to tell their stories.

“These are wanted pregnancies,” Semler said. “These are the most tragic, horrible situations you can think of.”

That doctors weren’t talked to or consulted about this bill played a role in state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl’s decision to vote against it.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said, noting that he has voted “for pro-life bills in the past.” Ravenstahl added that he looks at each bill individually and does “what I think is best for my constituents.”

In this case, after discussions amongst House Democrats, most members decided “this was not a piece of legislation that we wanted to support,” he said.

Nicole and John are represented by House Speaker Mike Turzai and state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, Republicans who both voted in favor of the legislation. (Turzai’s office did not respond to request for comment; Vulakovich was unavailable.)

John said he didn’t follow state politics that closely and was unaware there was “something [as] extreme” as Senate Bill 3 up for consideration.

“When I saw what it was about, I was floored,” he said.

In the weeks leading up to the House vote, John said he called Turzai’s office twice and was assured his story would be passed on: “I wanted to say this was a real message from a real person.”

For Nicole and John, a post-mortem revealed that the loss of their daughter was inevitable due to infection. Had that infection spread widely in Nicole’s body, “We potentially could have had a different outcome,” John said.

“I think it’s easy for someone to say that a baby’s life is as important as the mother’s life,” Nicole said. But, she added, laws providing for abortions after 20 weeks are in place to “protect people who end up in a position like me.”

“And that’s what they want to take away.”

2018 and beyond

A 20-week abortion ban in Pennsylvania has been vanquished for the moment, but it has by no means disappeared.

Following Wolf’s veto, Republicans running for governor released statements condemning his decision.

Paul Mango, a businessman from the Pittsburgh area, compared Wolf to convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell, while state Sen. Scott Wagner said in a statement he was “extremely disappointed by Governor Wolf’s decision … to stand in the way of protecting the innocent lives of our unborn children.”

Turzai is also running for governor, and he’s given his full-throated support to bills like SB3. “The passage of this bill is evidence of bipartisan and bicameral support to protect unborn children and mothers and demonstrates the Commonwealth’s commitment to promoting a culture of life,” Turzai said in a statement about the December vote. “The bill is both constitutional and reasonable.”

There’s a very real possibility that, if a Republican wins the governorship in 2018, Pennsylvania will ban abortions after 20 weeks and criminalize what the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists calls an “evidence-based and medically preferred” procedure.

That’s part of the reason Nicole and John said they wanted to tell their story: to take back the conversation around 20-week bans and what it means to be “pro-life.”

“I want them to realize how complex this issue is,” Nicole said. “It’s not all black and white, or as simple or straightforward as people want to assume it is.”

She believes people don’t understand the medically necessary reasons why women have so-called late-term abortions, or the difference between a miscarriage and a premature birth, or especially the gray period between those two events, when a viable pregnancy is impossible.

Sharing their story is not a personal attack on politicians who vote for these policies, John said, but rather a plea to get them to think about what their vote will actually do.

“To insinuate supporting a bill like this as having dignity for life or respect for the human being is to also imply that people who don’t support it don’t support life or the dignity of life,” he said. “I would really challenge anyone who knows us to say we don’t have dignity for life.”