50 Years after Roe v. Wade, State Courts Are the Last Line of Defense for Abortion in Pennsylvania

So long as our state courts remain fair and impartial, extremists won’t be able to shamelessly trample on our rights and freedoms.
abortion rally
Bucks County youth rally for abortion rights in Doylestown.

This Sunday would have marked the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark January 22, 1973 Supreme Court decision which recognized the constitutional right to abortion. With a single ruling, tens of millions of people across the country gained the freedom to make the most basic decisions about their own bodies and families without government interference. In the years since, three generations of Americans have come to rely on this fundamental right. But true progress never comes without setbacks. In 2022, nearly half a century after Roe was decided, that freedom was tragically ripped away from us by a politicized right-wing Supreme Court majority – many of whom were appointed to the nation’s highest court under the most controversial of circumstances. 

The sad reality is that regular Pennsylvanians can no longer depend on the federal judiciary to protect them. Instead, we must turn to our own state courts, now transformed into the last line of defense for abortion access and all sorts of other fundamental rights and freedoms, including our freedom to vote. But if we really want our courts to do their job in protecting us, we must be willing to stand up to defend our courts. And the best way to do that right now is to make our voices heard in the Commonwealth’s judicial elections in November. 

On November 7, Pennsylvanians from every corner of the state will come together to select who will fill an open seat on our state supreme court. Pennsylvania judicial elections have been known for their low participation rates, with many voters choosing to not turn out or fully vote all the way down the ballot. That can’t happen in 2023. The stakes are way too high. 

For years now, a minority of extremist politicians in our state legislature have worked to politicize or undermine our state courts at every opportunity. Two years ago, politicians launched a campaign to ram through a dangerous constitutional amendment that would have gerrymandered our judiciary by giving lawmakers the power to redraw districts used in judicial elections, effectively allowing them to tip the scales in favor of their own handpicked judges, and away from the will of the people. Not long before that, lawmakers attempted to impeach Democratic members of the state supreme court after judges ruled against a heavily gerrymandered congressional electoral map which would have silenced the voices of regular voters and made it harder to vote out incompetent and extremist politicians.

Meanwhile, deep-pocket, out-of-state interest groups are busy dumping ridiculous amounts of cash into our court races, hoping to gain influence over our judiciary, as if it were just another luxury item to be bought. These are the same shady groups that helped get our extremist state politicians elected to office. And in many cases, they’re the same groups who orchestrated the extremist takeover of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

So long as our state courts remain fair and impartial, extremists won’t be able to shamelessly trample on our rights and freedoms. But not for a lack of trying. Just take a look at a recent proposal by state lawmakers which would subject pregnant people in Pennsylvania to the unimaginable horror of forced birth. It would tear away from Pennsylvanians the power to make life-changing decisions about whether or not to have a child. Their ultimate goal is to pass a total abortion ban statewide. 

You don’t need a crystal ball to predict what comes after a statewide ban – it’s already happening in other states. Surveillance systems have been erected to track the movements of pregnant people; doctors have been rendered powerless to help their patients, allowing terrifying and often fatal outcomes due to forced births. We can never allow this to happen in Pennsylvania. 

In Pennsylvania, there’s consistently a drop off in voter turnout in years that end in odd numbers. We must give the electorate a reason to overcome the additional barriers to voter participation, and feel confident that they’re making the best decisions at the polls. Without organizations like the New Pennsylvania Project providing civic education about the function of the  judiciary and judicial elections, the average voter might skip the opportunity to vote for qualified and open-minded jurists, and just leave their ballot blank. We can’t afford to let that happen this year. We must ensure the electorate knows that courts matter.

The road to progress will always be long and winding. We can’t change the U.S. Supreme Court’s awful decision to do away with Roe v. Wade, but we can fight to protect Roe’s legacy in Pennsylvania. State courts are the firewall against attacks on abortion access, voting rights, and our other fundamental rights and freedoms. This November, do what’s right for your family and your beloved community by voting in the state supreme court election. Our future depends on it.

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Picture of Kadida Kenner

Kadida Kenner

Kadida Kenner is the CEO of the New Pennsylvania Project, a statewide voting rights organization with a primary focus on voter registration, civic engagement and mobilization, and co-chair of Why Courts Matter — Pennsylvania, a campaign educating Pennsylvanians about the importance of the independence of both the federal and state courts. She writes from Chester County.

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