How the House’s Democratic women owned the debate over Down syndrome abortion ban | Wednesday Morning Coffee

May 15, 2019 7:09 am

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(*This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Rep. Sara Innamorato’s last name. It has also been updated to correctly reflect the fact that Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, was telling the story of her sister’s decision to bring a challenging pregnancy to term, not her own. The Capital-Star regrets the error.)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

We’ll get this out of the way up front: We’re relatively certain that men spoke during Tuesday’s state House debate over a bill banning abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

But what they had to say was of absolutely no consequence — even after the bill cleared the House on a 117-76 vote (For the sake of the completists among you, the bill now goes to the Senate, where its fate appeared far from assured Tuesday in the face of a guaranteed veto from Gov. Tom Wolf).

In every way that mattered, the debate over a bill that went to the fundamental principles of personal freedom, choice, and bodily autonomy belonged exclusively to the women in the 203-member chamber, who, while they make up just a quarter of its total membership, spoke with a clarity of intent that was striking in its intelligence and sheer humanity.

And it belonged particularly to the chamber’s Democratic women.

That’s no more true than in the case of Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, who found herself facing calls for her resignation just a week or so back for some ill-chosen remarks about pipeline workers.

On Tuesday, Otten, speaking with quiet directness, relayed the searing, and deeply personal, choice *that her sister made to bring a baby son, who was born without an arm and with a serious heart problem, to term.

“I have watched my baby gasp for breath. I have watched as his heart arrested and they performed CPR on him in front of me,” Otten said —taking on the voice of her sister — of the long, sleepless nights spent at the child’s bedside. And as she spoke, every heart in the room, particularly among those who were parents, silently broke.

“I’m a tireless advocate and the mother of a child with special needs,” she said. “Every choice I’ve made has been that — a choice.”

And that was the point that Democratic women made again and again — that the Legislature had no role to play in what is, in the final analysis, a decision involving a woman, her doctor, her partner (if applicable), and whatever deity to whom she happens to bend a knee (or not).

Otten’s deeply personal story found echoes in remarks from Democratic Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler, of Philadelphia, and *Sara InnamoratoD-Allegheny, and Melissa Shusterman, of Chester County. 

“You cannot imagine all the intimate, nuanced decisions a woman must go through to come to a decision about an abortion,” Innamorato said, crystalizing the debate in an instant. “You’re voting against liberty and the ability of a woman to make the decision that’s best for herself, her family and her future.”

Speaking after InnamoratoShusterman added that, by approving the bill, the majority-male, majority-white, majority-Republican chamber was sending a clear signal that “women cannot be trusted to make decisions,” about their own bodies, and that 203-members of the General Assembly somehow knew what was best for “6.5 million women in Pennsylvania.”

And after she was thoroughly and gratuitously dissed  during floor debate last week, it seemed like House Speaker Mike Turzai, a co-sponsor of the ban bill with York County Rep. Kate Klunk, went out of his way to make sure that Rep. Liz Hanbidge, D-Montgomery, got her turn at the microphone.

Smart move, that.

There were even some touching stories from such Republicans as Rep. Sue Helm, R-Dauphin, a ‘yes’ vote on the ban, who spoke with a kind of grandmotherly affection about a young family member with Down syndrome. Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Luzerne, also a “yes” vote on the ban, and who went on her own deeply personal journey last year, spoke with affection about being an adopted mother.

The stories and arguments from the House’s women lawmakers piled up and up, until they rendered the rhetorical contortions of the chamber’s male members effectively irrelevant.

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, offered some impassioned arguments. And then he kind of blew it by banging on about an entirely advisory opinion from the Legislative Reference BureauHouse Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, joined the fray as well by trying to rebut Frankel on the LRB opinion.

But after Otten, Innamorato and ShustermanHanbidge, and other Democratic women members, it all just felt like noise. It just reinforced the complete absurdity of the notion that an overwhelmingly male legislative body has even half a clue about what’s best for women or their bodies.

And it underlined the fact, brought up so eloquently by the chamber’s Democratic women, that the ban bill wasn’t about ensuring disability rights or protecting kids with Down syndrome, as Republicans argued on the floor Tuesday.

It’s just about finding some ridiculous pretext to legislate abortion out of existence because the courts — at least for now and however precariously — aren’t cooperating.

So, yeah, women might make up a quarter of the House’s membership on paper. On Tuesday, they were the majority.

Our Stuff:
Stephen Caruso
 has the full details on Tuesday’s floor debate. 

Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed suit against Purdue Pharma on Tuesday, seeking reimbursement for the public health cost of the opioid epidemic.

Lawmakers in the state House touted their plans to help older foster kids, Caruso also reports.

And Tuesday with Toomey activists rallied on behalf of the 65th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.


On our Commentary Page, regular contributor Fletcher McClellan, of Elizabethtown College, aided by  recent graduate Kayla Gruberruminates on the growth of nonprofit news outlets.

The Inquirer explains what some of Philly’s most notable Instagram influencers do all day long.
The Post-Gazette has its coverage of Tuesday’s debate on the Down syndrome ban.
PennLive profiles the Democratic candidates for Cumberland County commissioner.
The Morning Call has what you need to know about sports betting in Pennsylvania. 

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

Sweetened beverage sales in Philly are down because of the city’s soda taxWHYY-FMreports.
U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran, will lead a congressional caucus focusing on female veterans, the Associated Press reports (via WITF-FM).
The Incline has a story of rebirth in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.
Politico looks at some of the problems that Mayor Pete is having among black voters.
Republicans have ducked a primary in a do-over election in a controversial congressional election, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House gavels in at 11 a.m. for its final voting day of the week.
9 a.m,. Media Center: Rep. Bob Freeman and Sen. Dave Argall on historic preservation tax credits.
11:30 a.m., Main Rotunda: Community Health Centers call for more funding for … community health centers.
12 p.m., Capitol Steps: A rally for 5G, which sounds like the most #FirstWorldProblemskind of rally you could possibly have without handing out free kombucha and Frank Turnertickets.
3 p.m.: Main Rotunda: Rally to extend the statute of limitations on sexual abuse.
7:30 p.m., Capitol Steps: ‘Ghost Bicycles’ commemorate bicyclist deaths in Pa.

Gov. Tom Wolf
 and LG John Fetterman, who have now appeared in public together 200 percent more times than Wolf and ex-LG Mike Stack, hold a joint event on infrastructure repair. You’ll find them at 12:30 p.m. in the Capitol rotunda.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
8 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Rep. Eric Nelson
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Steve Mentzer
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out just $1,000 today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to state Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh; crack Tribune-Review reporter Debra Erdley, and Ezra Thrush of PennFuture. Congratulations, all. Enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Yes, it’s basic AF. But sometimes it’s just better to get to the point. It’s Clean Bandit, and ‘I Miss You.’

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
leaped out to a 3-0 lead over Carolina in their Eastern Conference playoff series on Tuesday, winning 2-1 in a hard-fought game in Raleigh. Sigh.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.