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Abortion bans loom in purple states like Pennsylvania, injecting fear into the midterms

Women including Katie Kirk, 22, left, and Mia Cipalla, 26, front, voice support for reproductive rights in Perry Square in Erie, Pa., on May 3 while gathered in response to the news that the US Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide.Greg Wohlford/Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Julia Nelson, 26, has a home in West Philly, a feminist embroidery and rug business, an Ivy League graduate degree, and dreams of becoming a sex therapist.

It’s a life that would not have been possible for her, she says, if she had not been able to have an abortion a decade ago, when she became pregnant after a sexual assault. And now she is deeply worried that, if Roe v. Wade falls, that option will disappear for millions of women in Pennsylvania — a jarring possibility in a progressive enclave, in a liberal city, in a state that backed a Democratic president by 80,000 votes.

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“We like to believe in a place like West Philly we’re safe,” said Nelson, who plans to protest for abortion rights and is considering registering voters ahead of the November election. “I’m just terrified for the people of Pennsylvania.”

Over the past several years, many of the most vehement battles over abortion restrictions have unfolded in deep red states like Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. But if the Supreme Court strikes down the constitutional right to an abortion in the coming weeks, as a leaked draft opinion suggests it will, a new front in the abortion wars will open in purple states like Pennsylvania, just months before the midterm elections. Which party clinches the wide open race for governor, in particular, could determine the extent to which abortion remains legal here — a fact that may galvanize women voters in the state’s most Democratic precincts.

“It’s definitely on the ballot in a very different way,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University College of Law who specializes in the history of abortion. “There really is no blue bubble anymore.”

Pennsylvania is one of the five swing states that voted for Biden over Trump in 2020, but have state legislatures controlled by Republican lawmakers who are eager to curb abortion. Here, those efforts have been blocked by the term-limited Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, but all of the top Republicans vying to replace him have said they favor sweeping abortion bans. Already, there are multiple restrictions, including a heartbeat bill that would ban the procedure after roughly six weeks’ gestation, moving through the state legislature.

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And so Democrats here are leaning into a simple but pointed message: A vote for them is a vote to protect abortion rights in the state, while a vote for Republicans could lead directly to major new restrictions.

“The next governor of the Commonwealth is going to have a bill on his desk that bans abortion and every single one of my opponents will sign it into law,” said Josh Shapiro, the state’s Democratic attorney general, who is running unopposed in next week’s gubernatorial primary, in an interview. “I will veto it.”

The stakes are similarly high in Michigan and Wisconsin, where old laws that ban abortions without exceptions would go back into effect if Roe is overturned — unless Democratic governors, who say they will fight to repeal the statutes, are reelected in November.

Political strategists disagree about how much voters who favor abortion rights will be energized to turn out over the Supreme Court gutting Roe, should it do so, at a time of inflation worries, pessimism about the economy, and ongoing pandemic disruptions. And those who oppose them will likely turn out, too.

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But in the diverse and heavily Democratic city of Philadelphia, it was clear the probable end of Roe had rocked liberals’ sense of security and place in the state, as they grappled with the possibility of losing a popular right that has hardly dominated political debate in their world in recent years.

“It is strange,” said Deanne Lawrence, 62, a lawyer from Lansing, Mich., who was sitting outside a chic coffee shop on a visit to Philadelphia earlier this week. “We keep thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll always have abortion rights of choice,’ but it’s showing that we may not.”

A few blocks away, Syd Resnick, 25, a brewery bartender who identifies as gay, worried about the possibility the Supreme Court could roll back the right to marriage for gay people, as well. “I thought I was safe from the right wing,” Resnick said. “I thought we had a cushion that I am quickly realizing we don’t have.”

Antiabortion rights groups are hopeful that, eventually, federal lawmakers will ban abortion across the country. But in the meantime, they are hoping to notch state-level victories in a new, post-Roe landscape.

“The states are going to be the first front where change is made,” said Mallory Carroll, the vice president of communications for Susan B. Anthony List, a group that is working to to elect abortion opponents in nine states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, which all voted for Biden in 2020.

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Abortion rights advocates are quick to point out that the right to terminate a pregnancy has long been under threat, both here and in other politically moderate states. Pennsylvania, a state with a large Catholic population, loomed large in the abortion debates of the 1980s and 90s. The 1992 landmark Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey originated here, after a reproductive health clinic sued the Democratic governor, Robert P. Casey, over abortion restrictions in the state. That case upheld Roe, but it also allowed new restrictions such as 24-hour waiting periods that the court ruled don’t place an “undue burden” on women — a nebulous concept that spawned decades of additional litigation. Senator Bob Casey, that governor’s son, previously voted against codifying abortion into federal law, although he changed his position on this issue this week.

Still, abortion providers say it’s been decades since abortion access in the state felt as precarious as it does now. Polling shows 84 percent of Pennsylvania voters think abortion should be legal in either some or all circumstances, but Republicans have a significant advantage in the state’s gerrymandered legislature.

“Without constitutional protection, [an anti-abortion majority] can go as far as they want to to outright ban abortion,” said Roxanne Sutocky, the director of community engagement at the Women’s Centers, an organization that provides abortions in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and Georgia. “That would mean we can no longer provide the care that we have in this state for over 50 years.”

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, at podium, accompanied by elected officials and advocates for abortion rights speaks during a news conference on Independence Mall in Philadelphia on May 4.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Wolf, the Democratic governor who has previously staved off abortion restrictions with his veto pen, said he believed that kind of threat will galvanize voters—even though he said he wished it weren’t up to just one person in the state to protect abortion rights.

“I think this is going to force all of us, every voter to think about what’s important,” Wolf said. “And some of the things that maybe they thought were important all of a sudden don’t become quite as important as this — this is foundational.”

Some progressives worry that voters here do not yet understand what could be on the line after years of protection from Roe and a Democratic veto pen have left some voters with a sense of complacency.

“It’s all on the table — I don’t think people understand that,” said Kendra Brooks, a city councilor from Philadelphia who represents the progressive Working Families Party. Brooks has spoken publicly about having had an abortion herself, and she said she has asked her staff to look into what protections Philadelphia could offer if the state outlaws the practice.

“If any,” she added.

Democrats are vowing to make the high stakes clear.

“We literally could be Texas already, with restrictions, with strong limitations,” said state Representative Joanna McClinton, a Democrat. “We’re going to have to go on tour and have small discussion groups with constituents to spread the word.”

Abortion could also figure heavily into other hotly contested Pennsylvania races at the federal level. Democrats are hoping it will help them unseat Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican who has held onto his seat in the purple Philadelphia suburbs despite his district’s distaste for Trump.

“He was already a longstanding, anti-choice Republican,” said Ashley Ehasz, an Army veteran and a Democrat who is running against him and who is speaking at an abortion rights rally on Sunday. “Obviously with the leaking of the draft, it is even more in the forefront.” (A representative for Fitzpatrick did not immediately respond to a request for comment).

And, in the hotly contested race for US Senate, Republican candidate Kathy Barnette shot up in the polls ahead of next week’s primary after casting her own anti-abortion stance in deeply personal terms, saying her mother was raped and chose not to have an abortion when she was pregnant with her.

John Fetterman, the leading candidate for the Senate race’s Democratic nomination, told a local TV station that women’s reproductive rights are “nonnegotiable,” while his wife, Gisele Fetterman, said she believed that anxiety over the Roe decision draft would help his campaign.

Carroll, whose group has endorsed Barnette, said Democrats should not assume that pushing for abortion rights is a winning issue. “We’re talking to voters about the extreme positions held by our political opponents,” she said.

But as the abortion battle spreads, some women said they were going to be paying more attention to politics.

“It’s a swing state, even though we’re in Philly, and I might have to take a little more action,” said Anne Haviland, 32, as she pushed a stroller through Malcolm X Park. “It will matter a lot more who is our governor.”

Across from leafy Clark Park, Shakiya Canty, 30, a community organizer, and Alissa Wise, 43, a rabbi, sat outside a coffee shop where they were discussing a book called “Abolition. Feminism. Now,” by Angela Y. Davis and others. They were still thinking about how to respond, and which groups working on long-term strategy and rapid response might need support.

“It’s a wakeup call if nothing else,” said Wise, who said she had an abortion in college and that it was scary to think about the right to do so disappearing. “We didn’t need one, but it also is one.”

“It could always be Pennsylvania,” said Canty, referring to where the implications of the draft decision could really hit home. “I think that’s the honest truth, because of the way our state has looked for a long time.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.