Long divided by abortion, House Democrats anticipate strong showing against Down syndrome ban

By: - May 12, 2019 6:30 am

Democratic legislators gather around Gov. Tom Wolf at a Capitol press conference (Capital-Star photo).

House Democrats who support abortion rights are hoping that a likely vote this week on a bill to ban the procedure will be a chance for the caucus to flex their political muscle on a hot-button issue.

The majority-Republican chamber could vote as soon as Monday on legislation co-sponsored by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, that would ban abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Supporters say the bill protects human dignity and disability rights. Critics denounce it as likely unconstitutional and practically unenforceable.

A similar Down syndrome ban passed the 203-member House last year with 24 Democratic votes.

But abortion rights supporters are hoping for a different result this time around. Last year’s watershed midterm election not only brought in new progressive faces from moderate districts in the Philadelphia suburbs, it also saw the retirements of some long-serving Democrats who oppose abortion access.

“The reality is we have Democrats who won Republican seats and ran on supporting a woman’s right to choose,” Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware and a staunch choice ally, said. “The number of votes will be different on the board Monday.”

Abortion wasn’t always a partisan wedge. Congress, for example, used to have robust numbers of Republicans who backed abortion rights and Democrats who opposed them. Now, those margins are all but gone.

But what has decayed at the federal level is still alive in the Harrisburg. It’s Pennsylvania’s own Democratic former Gov. Bob Casey Sr. whose name is on a landmark 1992 Supreme Court ruling which set the current legal standard for state regulation of abortion.

And even now, two decades since the Clinton-era, when the state House faces an abortion vote, a double-digit tally of Democrats typically vote with their Republicans colleagues to pass new restrictions.

“Members will vote their district. We can’t lose sight of that,” Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie, said, pointing out the caucus still has a significant presence of lawmakers opposed to abortion rights.

Bizzarro, whose district includes the heavily Democratic city of Erie, and its neighboring rural communities, has been a consistent vote for abortion access.

But many other lawmakers from marginal, red-tinged districts have voted for expanding restrictions.

These votes often come from legislators hanging on in rural, ancestrally Democratic coal country in the northeast, or in old western Pennsylvania mill towns like New Castle, in Lawrence County. These are districts that over the past few years have voted for Republicans up ballot, and turned hard for President Donald Trump in 2016.

That shows in the votes. In 2016, for example, a 20-week abortion ban passed the House with support from 25 Democrats.

But Democratic resistance has stiffened since, in line with the national partisan trends. In 2017, Democratic support for a 20-week ban was cut in half, going from 25 votes to 12 votes. The bill was approved by the Senate, but ultimately vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Still, some ardent opposing voices remain. Among them is Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, of Allegheny County, who was elected in 2017. She was a “yes” vote on the Down syndrome ban last year, and she’ll be a “yes” vote this year, too, she told the Capital-Star.

Kulik credits her suburban Pittsburgh district for her opposition as well as her own values, but adds that she doesn’t think she’s been singled out for the position.

“I respect everyone’s view on this issue,” Kulik told the Capital-Star. “It’s a very sensitive issue. I fully respect everyone’s opinion on this, and I have never felt that I am under attack or scrutiny for my opinion by my colleagues.”

Ten Democrats voted against the 20-week ban in 2017, but voted in favor of the Down syndrome bill last year. Among them was Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, who declined to say how he might vote this week.

“I’m going to listen to the debate,” he told the Capital-Star.

Multiple rank-and-file lawmakers said House Democratic leadership hasn’t been tracking their votes on the Down syndrome bill. But the caucus has had recent success keeping lawmakers in line on a few other controversial votes, like a regulatory bill that failed on the floor two weeks ago.

It appears likely, at least for now, that the Down syndrome bill will pass the House this week. But, between new members’ enthusiasm and shifting ideologies, Democrats are prepared to put up a fight.

“You’ll see a record number of pro-choice votes from the Democratic caucus,” Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.