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Pennsylvania primaries preview midterms abortion rights fight

Josh Shapiro, who is running uncontested for the Democratic nomination for governor, will face a GOP candidate who favors a strict ban with no or limited exceptions.
Abortion rights activists at a rally held by Pennsylvania Democrats in Philadelphia on May 6. Josh Shapiro, Tom Wolf, Madeleine Dean and others spoke at the event. Heather Khalifa / The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

GREENSBURG, Pa. — Ann Trump, a supporter of the former president with whom she shares a last name but no relation, thinks abortion rights should be even more restricted here.

But Trump, 63, of New Stanton, isn’t in favor of a stringent ban, a position that puts her at odds with what has emerged as the consensus position among leading GOP candidates in Pennsylvania’s high-profile primaries. And it's here, perhaps more than in any other state, where the future of abortion rights is likely to be a key issue in this fall's general election campaigns.

“I do think because it [Roe v. Wade has] been around for so long now, to just completely ban it, it’s too much of an extreme,” Trump said in an interview at former President Donald Trump’s rally here this month. “I do think it should be allowed if it’s within the first trimester.”

In the weeks since a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion showed the court on the verge of overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which has protected the constitutional right to abortion for nearly a half-century, debate over the future of abortion rights has permeated Pennsylvania's elections ahead of Tuesday’s primaries while activists on both sides assess next moves. 

With the threat of abortion rights’ being cut, Democrats are looking for the issue to invigorate a base that has yet to recapture the momentum they generated during Trump's term. Republicans, on the cusp of achieving a long-sought goal of overturning Roe, have downplayed its electoral significance but pledged sweeping changes.

Nowhere will that debate play out more sharply than in the battle for governor, in which Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general who is running uncontested for the Democratic nomination, has pledged to veto any legislation that would curtail abortion rights that might hit his desk. Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, and Democrats haven’t held a single chamber since 2010.

Shapiro said in a recent interview that the issue of abortion rights will be “a central focus of my campaign.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at the "Democrats Defend Choice" rally in Philadelphia on May 6. Bastiaan Slabbers / NurPhoto via AP

“You have to level set on this and understand what this is really about. And I think this is about our fundamental freedoms,” Shapiro said, adding, “Every one of my opponents is extreme and wildly out of touch with where the majority of Pennsylvanians are on the issue of bodily freedom.”

Asked whether he favors any restrictions on abortion, Shapiro said he would support existing Pennsylvania law, which allows for abortion under any circumstance up to the 24th week of a pregnancy.

On the Republican side, front-runner Doug Mastriano, a far-right state senator who built a lead in the polls before Trump backed him Saturday, has advocated for no exceptions in an abortion ban and has introduced a bill that would bar abortions at about six weeks of pregnancy. Other Republican contenders, like former Rep. Lou Barletta, businessman Dave White and former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, have advocated for similar restrictions, with Barletta and McSwain allowing for exceptions in cases of rape or incest or if the woman’s life is at stake.

In a statement after the leak of the draft Supreme Court ruling, Mastriano said, “Our nation is on the precipice of repealing this science-denying genocide,” and he called for Pennsylvania to pass his “heartbeat bill,” which would bar abortions at six weeks, which is when a fetal heartbeat can be detected but is often before many women know they are pregnant.

Image: Doug Mastriano Campaigns For The Republican Nomination For Pennsylvania Governor
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Republican candidate for governor, at a rally Friday in Lehighton. Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Kansas are four states with Republican-controlled Legislatures and Democratic-controlled governorships on the ballot this fall, and should the Supreme Court overturn Roe, those governors' races could determine the future of abortion access in each. Pennsylvania is alone among the four in having an open race for governor, as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is term-limited.

Signe Espinoza, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said she and fellow abortion-rights advocates in the state have been working to help close what she described as a “believability gap” with voters who don’t believe Roe will be overturned.

Her two main concerns in Pennsylvania: the governor’s race and a constitutional amendment advancing through the Legislature that seeks to prevent the state Supreme Court from declaring abortion a right under the state Constitution. 

The amendment would have to pass the House and the Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions before it would go onto the ballot as a direct referendum issue for voters. It wouldn’t require a signature from the governor.

Michael Ciccocioppo, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, which backs the amendment, said it was launched in hope of counteracting the possibility that the state Supreme Court would issue a ruling loosening existing abortion restrictions involving taxpayer funding. The state Supreme Court, which has a Democratic majority, is hearing a challenge to a state law barring Medicaid from covering abortions. A lower court initially ruled against the petitioners, who are abortion-rights advocates.

“So our first concern right now is to pass a constitutional amendment that would say that abortion is not in the Pennsylvania Constitution,” he said. “That is a long process.”

Should Republicans retain control of the Legislature and win control of the governor’s mansion, Ciccocioppo said, “I can guarantee you we will all be getting together.”

He declined to get into specifics about legislative aims.

In Philadelphia, the impending fall of Roe — and the prospect that Republicans will seek to effectively outlaw abortion — appears to be motivating Democratic organizers.

“Overall we have to bring full control of the PA state in Democratic hands," Venise Whitaker, 48, who works in Philadelphia politics, said at a Shapiro campaign event. "With the GOP in control, we’re going to lose all of our rights. Equality will be out of the door.

“It’s disgusting. This is — our body, our right,” Whitaker added. “I should have the right to decide, not a man.”

Contrary to Democrats and abortion rights activists, Ciccocioppo and other Republicans who spoke with NBC News said they didn’t think abortion would dominate this fall’s elections. At his rally, Trump was almost entirely silent on the pending abortion ruling.

“I think that the pro-abortion people want to make this the dominant issue,” Ciccocioppo said. “But I just don’t think that’s going to happen, because that’s not where most Americans are.”

A national NBC News survey published Sunday found that 22 percent of U.S. voters consider abortion to be a top-two voting issue. In addition, 37 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in all circumstances, while 23 percent said it should be legal most of the time. Another 32 percent said it should be illegal with exceptions, while 5 percent said it should be illegal without any exceptions.

Kathy Barnette, once a long-shot GOP Senate candidate who is campaigning closely with Mastriano and has recently surged in the polls, said in an interview that she “really [hasn’t] heard anyone talk about” abortion as a campaign issue.

Image: GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Doug Mastriano Holds Campaign Rally Before PA Primary
Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Kathy Barnette speaks Saturday in Warminster. Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

Barnette’s surge coincided with the leaked Supreme Court ruling and Pennsylvania GOP voters’ becoming more aware of her personal story, in which she describes being the product of a rape her mother suffered at just 11 years old.

“As it relates to my own story, I’m grateful that our nation is having a very challenging conversation,” said Barnette, who favors no exceptions in an abortion ban. “I personally believe there’s no conversation worth having [more] than the conversation about life — all life — and especially the life of some of the most innocent people among us.”