Is Abortion Legal in Pennsylvania?
Yes, but there are important abortion restrictions to be aware ofBy S.M. Oliva | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 1, 2024 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Catherine T. Barbieri
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- The Post-Roe Legal Landscape of Abortion Laws
- The Pennsylvania Law on Abortion
- Informed Consent and the 24-Hour Waiting Period
- Minors Seeking Abortion Services
- Penalties for Performing Most Abortions After 24 Weeks of Pregnancy
- Find an Experienced Health Care Lawyer
In its 2022 decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, which had said that a woman’s constitutional privacy rights included the freedom to terminate her own pregnancy.
The Post-Roe Legal Landscape of Abortion Laws
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe, abortion didn’t automatically become illegal nationwide. Rather, in the absence of a recognized constitutional right to abortion, state laws determine whether women can legally access abortion services and under what circumstances.
In the post-Roe era, states have a spectrum of restrictions on abortion. Some states, notably Texas and many Southern states, ban abortion totally. And while the majority of states don’t totally ban abortion, there are varying degrees of restrictions. Pennsylvania is one of the states where abortion remains legal in the post-Roe era, but it’s also a state with comparatively restrictive rules.
The Pennsylvania Law on Abortion
Catherine T. Barbieri, an employment attorney at Fox Rothschild, says there are fewer clinics in Pennsylvania than there have been in the past. “One thing that tends to be true is that with an increase in accessibility to contraception, the abortion rate tends to decline,” she adds.
The state’s current Abortion Control Act provides that judges should construe any restrictions, to the extent permitted by law, to “further the public policy of this Commonwealth encouraging childbirth over abortion.” This public policy also permits any health care provider to refuse to perform or assist in abortions as a matter of “conscience.”
“The restrictions in Pennsylvania are consistent with a lot of the restrictions that we see in other states, recognizing that new restrictions are proposed frequently,” says Barbieri. “There have recently been proposals to have stricter restrictions on access to abortion.”
Informed Consent and the 24-Hour Waiting Period
Under the Abortion Control Act, no woman can obtain an abortion in Pennsylvania without giving “informed consent.” This means that a woman must receive counseling from her doctor or a social worker outlining the “risks” of abortion and providing her information about her “alternatives.”
Following this counseling, the woman must wait at least 24 hours before she can receive the abortion. An abortion provider who performs an abortion without providing the required counseling or respecting the 24-hour waiting period is considered guilty of “unprofessional conduct” and may face suspension of his or her license to practice medicine in Pennsylvania.
Minors Seeking Abortion Services
A woman under the age of 18–a legal minor–normally cannot obtain an abortion without the “informed consent” of at least one parent. If the minor’s parents are divorced, consent from the custodial parent is considered sufficient. If the parents are deceased or otherwise unavailable, consent is required from whoever has been designated the minor’s legal guardian.
If a parent or guardian withholds consent, the minor can only seek an abortion by first obtaining a court order. The judge must consider a number of factors—including the minor’s age, maturity and intellect—in deciding whether to grant her “full capacity” to consent to her own abortion.
Once again, if a doctor knowingly performs an abortion on a minor who either lacks parental consent or fails to obtain a court order is guilty of “unprofessional conduct” and faces a license suspension.
Penalties for Performing Most Abortions After 24 Weeks of Pregnancy
Abortions that take place after the fetus is more than 24 weeks old are treated as a crime in Pennsylvania. Specifically, it is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison, to perform an abortion if 24 or more weeks have elapsed since a pregnant woman’s last menstrual period.
Such abortions are legal, however, if a physician determines it is necessary “to prevent either the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the woman.”
And even when third-trimester abortions are deemed medically necessary, they must be performed in strict compliance with certain additional restrictions (unless there is a medical emergency). For instance, the abortion must take place in a hospital and be performed “in a manner which provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive,” provided it does not compromise the woman’s health.
A doctor may be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor if he or she performs any third-trimester abortion in violation of these regulations.
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