Pennsylvania Abortion-Rights Forces Face Uphill Fight

PRO-CHOICE forces are likely to run into a stone wall in Pennsylvania despite momentum gained from victories in Florida and the US House of Representatives last week. The Keystone State's legislature is next in line to consider more restrictions on abortion. And the move to toughen regulations here seems a foregone conclusion.

``Pennsylvania has probably the most educated legislature in terms of abortion,'' says Denise Neary, development director for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.

Since the United States Supreme Court's Webster decision in July, which gave states more latitude to regulate abortion, the battle between abortion-rights proponents and anti-abortion forces has focused on state legislatures.

But choice advocates are glum about prospects here, despite past victories.

``Pennsylvania is one of those places where we have a good likelihood of defeat,'' says Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League. Privately, pro-choice strategists present an even bleaker assessment. A look at the legislative equation in western Pennsylvania shows why.

The southwest region of the group Pennsylvanians for Human Life has been organizing counties around Pittsburgh for nearly 20 years. Of 39 state representatives in the region, 30 voted consistently with anti-abortion forces, says Michael Andreola, the group's executive director. All 10 of the region's state senators are in the anti-abortion camp, he adds.

The issue cuts across party lines: Four-fifths of state legislators in this region are Democrats, but most have broken with their national party over the issue. A prominent Republican is a leading factor in the Pittsburgh abortion-rights movement. The anti-abortion forces draw support from evangelical Christian groups in rural areas and Roman Catholics in the cities, but their appeal is broader than that. And their strength may have more to do with the area's social conservativism. Mr. Andreola characterizes the anti-abortion stance as a battle by the little guy against the social elite.

``Pennsylvania is a very conservative area,'' says Marion Damick, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Greater Pittsburgh. ``It also has a high proportion of working class.''

The local ACLU has joined with other groups here not normally considered working class (the League of Women Voters, the National Organization for Women, and Planned Parenthood, among others) to form Western Pennsylvanians for Choice. But the pro-choice group also draws support from a local of the International Union of Electronic Workers, she says.

The Pennsylvania anti-abortion forces have been helped immensely by the support of an ardent anti-abortion legislator, state Rep. Stephen Freind. It is his bill that is expected to win legislative approval and that Gov. Robert Casey, a Democrat, has said he would sign. Anti-abortion forces say they could get a law passed by next month.

The most controversial portions of the bill, according to pro-choice activists, would limit or otherwise discourage abortions in several ways. First, no abortions would be allowed after 24 weeks of pregnancy, unless the mother's life is endangered. Second, women would have to request an abortion at least 24 hours before the operation. Physicians would be required to inform women about the process, its risks, and alternatives, such as social agencies that help unwed mothers.

This last requirement is the so-called informed-consent provision struck down by a narrow margin of the Supreme Court in 1986. Anti-abortion activists believe the provision will be upheld now that the makeup of the Supreme Court has changed. And they say that of all the measures in the Pennsylvania bill, it has the most potential for limiting abortions.

The Pennsylvania bill also would require married women to notify their husbands that they are pregnant and planning to abort - a move that would uphold what Representative Freind calls male procreative rights. There are exceptions. The woman would not have to notify her husband if he is not the father of the child, if he cannot be reached, or if notification would put the woman in danger.

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