Election 2018

Emily’s List plans to target Pa.’s anti-choice Republicans. But what about the Democrats?

Much like national Democrats, Pennsylvania’s party leadership doesn’t appear to reject candidates opposed to abortion access.

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

Ken Marshall / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

Updated: Oct. 5, 2:55 p.m.

Both chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature are officially “On Notice.”

That warning was recently handed down by Emily’s List, a national PAC that supports pro-choice, female Democratic candidates, because of the 20-week abortion bans advancing through both the House and Senate.

“Pennsylvania has the distinct honor of both the House and Senate being on our list,” said Julie McClain Downey, national director of campaign communications for Emily’s List.

On Notice” loosely means the PAC will support candidates who oppose anti-choice Republicans from both chambers. In the House, McClain Downey said the goal is to break into the strong Republican majority, while the goal is to flip the Senate.

Emily’s List has yet to identify specific districts to target, but there’s already a political advisor working with the Democratic caucus and starting to work with candidates on finance operations and communications, she said.

What Emily’s List won’t do, however, is target Democrats who don’t support a woman’s right to choose. And there are quite a few of them in the Pa. House.

Of the Democrats in the House during the 2015-16 session, 25 voted in favor of a bill that bans abortion after 20 weeks. That decision, one Pittsburgh doctor told The Incline, would “[force] physicians to abandon our own ethics and good practice and provide lesser care, face criminal penalties, or deny women the care they need.”

Of those 25, four lost their seats following the vote — all but one to Republicans.

A litmus test?

The Democratic party platform features a commitment to safe, legal abortion, but that doesn’t settle the debate about where a member of the party should stand on the issue.

DNC Chair Tom Perez in April told the HuffPost, “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health. That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”

But just a few months later, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said “there is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates” on abortion.

Perez seems to be on his own among Democratic leaders, as even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has stated that Democrats can be “pro-choice.” Similarly, the Pennsylvania Democratic establishment appears to welcome candidates who don’t support abortion access.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party doesn’t have its own platform, per a spokeswoman, and subscribes to one from the DNC:

Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice. We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured. We believe that reproductive health is core to women’s, men’s, and young people’s health and wellbeing. We will continue to stand up to Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood health centers, which provide critical health services to millions of people. We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment. We condemn and will combat any acts of violence, harassment, and intimidation of reproductive health providers, patients, and staff.

A spokeswoman for the party did not answer a question from The Incline about whether it supports or endorses anti-choice Democrats who don’t subscribe to the DNC platform.

But Nancy Mills, chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, said it’s essentially up to the voters to decide what sort of candidate they want to support.

Allegheny County has the distinction of sending a high number of anti-choice Democrats to Harrisburg. That includes one of Pittsburgh’s three Democratic state senators, Jim Brewster, who was the only Democrat in the Senate to vote in favor of the 20-week abortion ban. At least two anti-choice House incumbents from the county — Dom Costa and Adam Ravenstahl — will be challenged in the 2018 primary, in part, because of that stance.

After the ban passed the Senate in February, Brewster’s spokesman told The Incline that the senator had heard from constituents in favor of the ban but not opposed to it.

Likewise, Mills said it’s up to each district’s constituents and party leaders to make their priorities known.

“[Candidates] deal directly with the people who are going to vote for them,” she said, adding that some areas of Allegheny County are more conservative while others are progressive. Mills said jobs, health care and education — as opposed to reproductive rights — are the issues that are most important to many areas of the county.

As chair, Mills said she would never tell a legislative district it had to endorse or oppose a candidate for any specific reason, including abortion.

“We don’t take a stand as a party,” she said.

A choice on pro-choice?

While a Democratic endorsement doesn’t say much about a candidate’s support for abortion access, there is a way for Pennsylvania voters to see which politicians support reproductive choice.

Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, the electoral arm of the health care nonprofit, releases a voter guide for each primary and general election.

Meghan Roach Eirkson, director of policy for PPPA, said the nonprofit’s PAC board makes endorsements based on a questionnaire, the voting track record of incumbents and conversations with the candidates. Questions aren’t limited to abortion and reproductive rights; candidates views’ on a range of women’s health issues from accommodations for breastfeeding to sex ed are also considered.

With many anti-choice Democrats hailing from the Pittsburgh area, Roach Eirkson said she thinks “there’s a common misconception in Western Pa. that people’s faith would keep them from supporting” services provided by Planned Parenthood. That’s reflected in a 2015 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute that showed a majority of Catholics support legal abortion.

But just as there are Catholics for choice, there are Democrats who aren’t. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that just under a quarter of Democrats believe abortion should be illegal in most cases.

Christian Matozzo is one of those Democrats.

Being a pro-life Democrat means supporting the “whole life,” Matozzo, a Philly-native, said. He cited Bob Casey Sr., the former Pennsylvania governor who wasn’t allowed to deliver a pro-life speech at a Democratic National Convention, as exemplifying this model.

Matozzo is head of the Pa. chapter of Democrats for Life of America, which supports full bans on abortion, overturning Roe v. Wade and defunding Planned Parenthood. He found the organization online and became a volunteer, including at last July’s DNC in Philly.

Conversations with Democrats at the convention were varied, he said: About a fifth of the people who approached the chapter’s booth agreed with their stance, while three-fifths didn’t.

“We’re fighting for our stake at the table,” he said. “We want our voice to be heard.”

At the moment, his group is trying to make that happen through membership building. Matozzo couldn’t provide specific membership numbers, but said about 30 people and 12 speakers attended an April conference. One of those speakers was state Rep. Michael J. Driscoll, who represents part of North Philly and voted in favor of the 20-week ban.

Matozzo is watching the debate happening on the national level and sees the 2018 elections as a referendum on whether pro-life Democrats like Sen. Bob Casey are part of the party’s future.

“I’m convinced that we have a space in this party,” he said. “We have a place here.”

Correction: This piece originally included a quote from Nancy Mills about the Democratic party’s stance on abortion that she says did not accurately reflect her view or the party’s. It has since been deleted to remove any confusion.

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