By Rachel Tillison
Sept. 27th brought hundreds of people to the Rotunda of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Unlike the tour groups that pass through the building on a weekly basis, Tuesday’s group arrived with a different purpose.
Armed with signs and rubbing the sleep from their eyes, men and women of all ages gathered at the Rotunda from 9am to 2pm to rally against three anti-abortion bills proposed in the House and the Senate.
Introduced at the beginning of 2011, Senate Bill 3, House Bill 574 and Senate Bill 732 have reopened the complicated discussion of abortion in Pennsylvania. In the months following their introduction to the legislature, Senate Bill 732 has emerged as the bill that pro-choice leaders in the state are most worried about. The bill was amended on June 27, 2011 to impose stringent Ambulatory Surgical Facility regulations (ASF) on all abortion providers in the state.
ASF regulations mandate that all abortion procedures, no matter how minor, be performed in operating rooms, even though most abortions are non-sterile procedures that can safely be performed in rooms of 150 to 200 square feet. In addition to facility requirements, ASF regulations require that abortion facilities comply with a number of other expensive conditions.
According to independent abortion providers, the passage of Senate Bill 732 would force them to discontinue their abortion services and would ultimately eliminate safe, abortion care in Pennsylvania. [For a complete review of the bills, see “The Bill Breakdown” at the end of this article.]
All of the rally participants who gathered on Tuesday morning have been involved in this discussion through various pro-choice organizations in the state. One group, Pennsylvanians for Choice, an umbrella coalition that leads these pro-choice groups, organized the rally under the theme of “We’ve Had Enough.”
“The coalition discussed different names for the rally but this name seemed to sum up the frustration that we’re all feeling” said Sue Frietsche, one of the leaders of Pennsylvanians for Choice.
Among the groups that gathered, excitement and a feeling of frustration united them. For one attendant, frustration towards lawmakers caused her to make the trip from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.
“I’m disappointed that our legislators don’t see that these bills are really about women’s healthcare” said Mimi Olczak, a participant who heard about the rally through her sister. “These bills will endanger the type of care that women can access.”
Dr. Parker, an abortion provider who started the rally’s series of speakers, publically criticized state legislators who support the bills.
To the applause of the crowd, Dr. Parker demanded, “If they were really interested in saving women’s healthcare, then they would stop these bills.”
Surprisingly, several representatives, including Rep. Babette Josephs and Rep. Dan Frankel, could be seen among the crowd clapping and speaking with constituents.
Brenda Green, Executive Director of CHOICE lead the rally and drew cheering from the crowd every time she announced the arrival of a legislator who stopped by to show their support. Above the crowd, office staffers and other representatives could be seen watching the event and listening to the speakers before slipping back into their offices behind the scenes.
The presence of legislators was especially important as Pennsylvania resident stood up to share her personal experience with abortion. After thanking the medical professionals who treated her, Sarah Tombler-Gimple questioned the legislature’s sensitivity to the healthcare decisions that women face. Addressing the crowd she asked, “How would they feel if someone they loved needed an abortion?”
Although the event included a variety of participants and supporters, men and women clergy members from across the state also formed a strong presence in the Rotunda. Reverend Beverly Dale, leader of the organization Pennsylvania Clergy for Choice, spoke on behalf of the growing number of pro-choice religious leaders in the state.
“It is immoral in our view to make this form of legal healthcare so expensive. Making this care unavailable to the poor is a form of class warfare” Dale argued during her speech. “Abortion is a moral choice and sometimes a necessary moral choice.”
Ellie Smeal, founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation and two-time President of the National Organization for Women, spoke at the rally and stressed the larger scope of this issue in the U.S.
“Like Roe vs. Wade so many years ago,” said Smeal “this is about a nationwide movement.”
Although the pro-choice sentiment was strong on Tuesday, it is unclear what will be the final outcome of this legislation. SB 732 is scheduled to be voted on in the House during the week of October 3rd. If passed, the bill will be sent to the Senate for final review before it reaches Governor Corbett’s desk.
Under the direction of Pennsylvanians for Choice, the We’ve Had Enough campaign is poised to continue their education efforts against the bills until the end.
The Bill Breakdown
SB 3: This bill bans private insurance plans sold in the PA health insurance exchange, created under health care reform, from covering even medically necessary abortions. The bill also denies insurance plans participating in the exchange from covering abortion services except in cases where pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or where the life of the woman is in danger.
HB 574 and SB 732: HB 574 originally proposed applying Ambulatory Surgical Facility (ASF) regulations to providers of abortion. SB 732, in its original form, increased the Department of Health’s role in inspecting providers on a regular basis. On June 27, 2011, SB 732 was rewritten to include all of the same provisions as HB 574. SB 732 is now the primary bill that will endanger safe, abortion care in Pennsylvania.