PA House Rushes to Vote on Extreme Anti-Abortion Bill

By Julie Zaebst, Director, Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project

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Update: June 21, 2016

Soon after this post was originally published in early April, HB 1948 stalled in the House. Now, the House is poised to take a final vote on the bill as early as this afternoon, Tuesday, June 21st. A companion bill, SB 888, has also been introduced in the Senate and has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.

April 6, 2016

Yesterday, the House Health Committee moved with breath-taking speed to vote on an extreme anti-abortion bill that would make it illegal to provide abortion care to some of the most vulnerable women in some of the most difficult circumstances. House Bill 1948 would ban abortion after 20 weeks and would ban the safest and most common method of second trimester abortion, preventing doctors from making decisions based on medical science and putting women’s health at risk.

The bill contains only a very narrow exception of the health and life of the woman – one that could force doctors to wait until the woman’s health deteriorates before providing her with the abortion care she desperately needs. And the bill includes no exception for rape, incest or fetal anomalies, which often aren’t discovered until a woman’s 20-week ultrasound.

Make no mistake – this is one of the most extreme abortion bans we’ve seen in any state legislature. Only two other states – Kansas and Oklahoma – have enacted this type of “method ban,” and both of these laws have been put on hold by the courts because they raise serious constitutional issues. Method bans substitute a political agenda for a doctor’s expert opinion about which procedure is best for their patient – and threaten doctors with criminal charges if they follow their professional training and conscience and perform an abortion using this method.

But the House Health Committee didn’t pause to consider the expert opinions of doctors or to ask themselves whether this bill would pass constitutional muster. The committee voted to advance HB 1948 just one business day after the legislation was introduced and after just an hour of debate. Members voted against holding a public hearing that would have provided an opportunity for the real experts – medical professionals and families who have sought later abortion care – to share their knowledge and experience with lawmakers.

Anti-choice lawmakers claim that abortion restrictions don’t “punish women,” as Donald Trump recently suggested they should. It’s true that HB 1948 wouldn’t impose criminal penalties on women – only on the medical professionals who are addressing women’s medical needs using evidence-based protocols that are the standard of care for their profession.

But let’s be clear, these types of restrictions do punish women. Just last week, we heard the story of a woman in Texas who was forced to wait for her fetus to die in utero and endure a stillbirth because of a similar type of restriction on later abortion care. When women and their families are confronted with complex medical issues like this, they deserve compassionate care guided by the best medical science – not political interference.

We can’t stand by while lawmakers ram through a dangerous bill with callous disregard for the health and well-being of women seeking later abortion care or for the medical expertise of the doctors who are doing their best to serve them. Contact your lawmaker today and let them know you believe a woman’s health, not politics, should drive important medical decisions.

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Julie Julie Zaebst has served as director of the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project since 2014, bringing more than 10 years of experience as a program manager and advocate. A social worker by training, she previously worked in child welfare and as the associate director of the civic engagement Office at Bryn Mawr College.

Marijuana Deform at the State Capitol

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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In June of last year, members of the state House received this co-sponsorship memo from one of their colleagues. The opening paragraph reads:

I hope you join me in sponsoring legislation that will reduce the penalty for a first or second offense of possessing a small quantity of marijuana (under 30 grams) from a misdemeanor to a summary offense. Downgrading this offense from a misdemeanor to a summary offense would have a positive effect on local law enforcement efforts, allowing police and prosecutors to focus their time and resources on more serious offenses.

At first glance, you might think, ‘Wow! This is progress.’ The memo concludes:

As a former law enforcement officer, I strongly believe in cracking down on drug dealers and those who prey on the young or weak with drugs. But those defendants are addressed elsewhere in the Controlled Substances Act. For individuals who merely possess small amounts of marijuana, I believe this adjusted grading makes sense, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars in court costs.

‘Reason is breaking out at the General Assembly,’ you’re thinking.

Well, don’t get out your Ben Harper records and get ready to burn one down just yet. Like anything at the legislature, details matter. And the details here ain’t good.

House Bill 1422, introduced by Representative Barry Jozwiak of Berks County, does indeed lower the grading of possession of a small amount of marijuana, defined as less than 30 grams. Of course, a summary offense is still a criminal offense, though it is the lowest Pennsylvania can go in state law, short of full-blown legalization.

But that’s not the real story with HB 1422. The real story is the massive increase in the fines for possession. Under current law, a person charged with possession faces a maximum fine of $500. There is no minimum fine. According to Jozwiak’s own co-sponsorship memo, the typical fine is around $200.

His bill, though, turns that concept on its head and institutes a minimum fine of $500. With no maximum fine. And it climbs from there. For a second offense, the minimum fine is $750, and a third offense brings a minimum fine of $1000.

If you’re a member of the ACLU or have any cursory knowledge about civil rights, you can see where this is going. If implemented, HB 1422 gives the police perverse incentive to excessively stop, search, and harass people to generate revenue from marijuana users, people who are no more danger (and maybe less) to public safety than people who use the legal drug of alcohol. (Access to which the legislature just expanded. FYI.) And that will disproportionately impact people of color and people from certain neighborhoods.

This is not mere conjecture. In 2013, the ACLU released our report The War on Marijuana in Black and White. The report analyzed nationwide data on arrests for marijuana and found that Pennsylvania had the sixth-highest rate of racial disparity in marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010. A black Pennsylvanian was nearly six times more likely than a white Pennsylvanian to be arrested for a marijuana offense, even though research consistently shows parity in usage among people of different races.

Plus, without a ceiling set on the fine, it is easy to imagine some cowboy judge who thinks that the War on Drugs was a swell idea dishing out fines of thousands of dollars for a single offense. After all, the bill gives judges discretion to implement any fine they want, as long as it is not below $500.

Of course, this is going in the exact opposite direction of the national trend. In December, Delaware became the 19th state to decriminalize marijuana possession, creating a civil offense with a fine not exceeding $100. Maryland followed in February. In November, Maine, Florida, and Nevada will vote on ballot initiatives to start some form of legalization.

Meanwhile, the city of Philadelphia has saved millions of dollars with its local decriminalization ordinance that created a civil offense with a fine of $25 for possession and $100 for smoking in public. And in 2015, Colorado generated $135 million in tax revenue from its tax-and-regulate initiative.

I give Rep. Jozwiak and the House Judiciary Committee credit for continuing to think about ways to reform marijuana laws. But tagging cannabis users with fines many times larger than current law is not the way to go.

There is a smart way to do this. Representative Ed Gainey of Pittsburgh has introduced House Bill 2076. That bill also lowers the grading of possession to a summary offense and lowers the maximum fine to $100 without risk of incarceration or the suspension of the person’s driver’s license, which is currently one of the penalties for possession.

Two months ago, the legislature acknowledged the reality that cannabis can help patients by passing Senate Bill 3, what became Act 16. It was a small but significant recognition that the commonwealth has handled marijuana in the wrong way for decades. It’s time to fix the mistakes that have been made and get smart on cannabis.


Andy_Blog_HeadhshotAndy Hoover joined the ACLU of Pennsylvania in December 2004, as a community organizer and became legislative director in 2008. As the organization’s lead lobbyist, Andy largely deals with civil liberties and civil rights issues at the state capitol.