On Wednesday, a coalition of over 30 state lawmakers introduced the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a package of bills intended to ensure that their female constituents will be able to to live longer and healthier lives. The legislative push is being spearheaded by the state’s bipartisan Women’s Health Caucus.
The new agenda includes measures that would ensure workplace protections for pregnant women and nursing mothers; create a buffer zone around health clinics to prevent anti-abortion harassment; advance pay equity; extend coverage for breast and cervical cancer screenings; protect victims of domestic violence; and criminalize some forms of online harassment perpetrated by an intimate partner.
“The Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health represents a genuine cross-section of issues and concerns facing women today,” Rep. Dan Frankel (D-PA), one of the co-chairs of the caucus, said in a statement. “This is a comprehensive collection of bills based on what women want in regard to their own health.”
Reproductive rights advocates in the state agree. Back in October, when the Women’s Health Caucus first began making plans for the agenda, several pro-choice advocacy groups offered their input. “We, as advocates, understand that there are other areas of concern, but believe these health care agenda items are a good start,” Joanne Tosti-Vasey, who represented Pennsylvania’s chapter of the National Organization for Women, wrote at the time.
Women’s health supporters like Tosti-Vasey are heralding the legislation as a welcome departure from the GOP-controlled legislature’s historical focus on enacting harsh restrictions on abortion clinics. Pennsylvania was home to the illegal abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, whose barbaric crimes spurred anti-choice lawmakers in the state to crack down on abortion access even among legal clinics.
“For far too long, the agenda of the Pennsylvania legislature has been to restrict and reduce women’s access to reproductive care under a false guise of promoting women’s health,” Meghan Roach, the Director of Policy at Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, noted in the organization’s official endorsement of the effort. “It is time to stop playing politics with women’s health and focus on proactive policies that will protect and promote the health and safety of women and families.”
In that context, it makes sense that the new legislative package doesn’t attempt to broadly expand abortion rights. Of course, enacting buffer zones around abortion clinics is an important method of ensuring that women can access abortion services without being shamed or bullied. But the Agenda for Women’s Health doesn’t make any moves to expand the pool of abortion providers, like California recently did, and doesn’t propose repealing unnecessary restrictions on abortion clinics, like the bill that was introduced in the Senate last month does.
That’s a smart strategy, the American Prospect’s Amelia Thomson-Deveaux argues, because Pennsylvania’s package might actually stand a chance of passing the Republican-controlled legislature. Significantly, a very similar initiative in New York failed in June because it included language that would have strengthened abortion rights, and pro-choice lawmakers weren’t willing to remove it. (Now, advocates in the Empire State are trying again, without the abortion measure.)
And after several years of mounting state level attacks on women’s health — according to the Guttmacher Institute, both 2011 and 2012 were record-breaking years for new abortion restrictions, and 2013 has shaped up to be more of the same — it’s nice for pro-choice advocates to be able to take a break from being on the defensive.
“We’re so used to playing defense as women’s health supporters, we want a chance to be proactive,” Gabe Spece, executive director for Frankel’s office, told the American Prospect. “The atmosphere on abortion rights in the legislature right now is very harsh. But we have a bunch of bills here that like-minded people with common sense can agree on, and we’re optimistic that they’ll have significant bipartisan support.”