On the Pennsylvania campaign trail, the doctor’s gonna see you now
“This is the first time I’ve really seen the medical community activate like this,” said Lisa Goldstein, a pediatric psychiatrist who ran a restricted voting operation out of her garage in suburban Philadelphia for the past few years. years. “Doctors are generally very cautious in their public lives, but there isn’t that feeling right now. We are out there saying what we believe.
It’s a major shift for Pennsylvania’s medical community — the state’s fourth-largest employment sector, employing more than 400,000 people — as physicians and medical organizations are generally hesitant to get into politics, anxious to maintain good relations with the Democratic Governor and Republican Legislature.
“It’s unusual,” said David Talenti, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and a gastroenterologist who practices in Wayne County. “But the reason we weighed in is that we see this as a significant threat to our medical practice.”
Democratic candidates in the state and federal elections in Pennsylvania have capitalized on the message of the doctors, confident he can both activate their progressive base and win over independents and Republicans — especially suburban women — whose votes are critical to winning statewide. The focus on the impact of abortion restrictions on the medical community comes as Democrats make closing arguments in the races for governor and senator — two contests where polls show them leading — and the state legislature, where Democrats are targeting a dozen Republicans in an attempt to take control of the Statehouse for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Amid that barrage, Republicans say doctors’ fears about the impact on the state’s medical industry are overblown, and they’re confident voters care more about other issues.
“I have a lot of town halls, and that’s not something that people talk about regularly,” said Republican House Representative Torren Ecker, who represents a county where former President Donald Trump won two-thirds. votes in 2020. “For the general public, when you knock on doors, it’s wallet issues, it’s inflation, it’s education. It’s things like that that people care about in this moment.
Ecker, who told POLITICO he’s pro-life, added that while the voice of doctors is important in the abortion debate, he doesn’t see them changing the outcome.
“I think healthcare professionals should definitely have a seat at the table. I’m not going to ignore what they say,” he said. “But other groups are also important in bringing the whole picture together.”
Abortion is legal in the state up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. But Republicans in the next session are expected to pass legislation to submit to voters a measure in 2023 that would amend the state constitution to establish that there is no protection for the right to abortion – paving the way for new laws that would criminalize the procedure.
Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, has expressed support for a total ban on abortion from conception with no exemptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz distanced himself from that position, saying he does not support a national abortion ban and calling for exemptions in such cases. He did, however, tell his supporters during a town hall telecast earlier this year that he views abortion as murder at any stage of pregnancy.
The Mastriano campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Asked about the doctors’ statements, Oz communications director Brittany Yanick dismissed them as partisan and few in number, adding, “What a joke.”
Pennsylvania doctors say the GOP is winning and the criminalization of abortion that could follow would mean that medical students in the state’s top schools would receive incomplete and inferior training in areas such as handling miscarriages. diapers, emergency obstetrics and termination of ectopic pregnancies, which would threaten the reputation of the state. as a destination of choice for medical care.
Echoing arguments made by doctors, nurses and other medical professionals in Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, West Virginia and other states weighing new restrictions on the procedure, doctors from Pennsylvania also claim that fear of lawsuits and inability to use their best medical judgment will deter providers of all kinds from practicing in Pennsylvania, which could hinder access to abortion and decrease the quality of health care in a State that has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the country.
Democrats rely on doctors as trusted voices to help sell their message. At a press conference at Ala Stanford Women’s Health Center in North Philadelphia on Tuesday, Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro passed the microphone to Valerie Arkoosh, anesthesiologist, obstetrician and Democrat of Montgomery County who treated pregnant patients. in university hospitals in the region for more than 20 years.
At Lt. Governor and Democratic Senate hopeful John Fetterman’s campaign office across from Philadelphia City Hall on Thursday, a group of white-coated doctors excoriated Oz for his stance on abortion and for the products he has promoted on his longtime television. show and said his win would threaten medical care in the Keystone State.
“If I was a young medical student deciding where to start a family, there’s no way I would choose to live in a state with an abortion ban if I had any other choice,” said the one of the doctors, Belinda Birnbaum, at POLITICO. “It would further exacerbate our existing labor shortages in primary care, rheumatology and other fields.”
Birnbaum, a rheumatologist who has spent recent weekends canvassing in the Battlefield suburb of Philadelphia, is one of more than 300 doctors who formed Physicians for Fetterman and Shapiro earlier this year. Unlike Birnbaum, who became politically active during the Trump administration, this is the first foray into politics for the overwhelming majority of the group’s members, according to its leaders.
As they roll out across the state in the final weeks before the election knocking on doors, hosting town halls and testifying at county and township meetings, they draw on their experiences to try to influence voters who might view abortion as a culture war. or religious battle.
“I think a lot of people who call themselves pro-life or anti-abortion don’t see the kind of sweeping legislation that Republicans are pursuing could potentially affect their own family member who has a hemorrhage or an early miscarriage or a ectopic. pregnancy,” said Jessica Klemens, an OBGYN who practices in Montgomery County and had not engaged in policy advocacy until this year. “I had a second trimester patient who had his waters broke and presented with a fever, and things can get complicated very quickly. In prohibiting states, doctors have to wait and wonder how sick a person must be before they can have an abortion.
Doctors and medical students are also lobbying their employers — the state’s largest schools and health systems — to use their political clout to defend abortion rights, but they said it had been “a harder hill to climb” and most refused to take a stand.
“There are a variety of reasons, including institutional inertia and fear of political retaliation,” said Benjamin Abella, an emergency physician at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia and leader of Doctors for Shapiro and Fetterman. “It is understandable that they are extremely cautious, but we are saddened by this because we think this issue crosses a clear line. Once this door is opened, what else will they try to legislate? These groups don’t have to be reassured that it will end with the abortion.
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — the largest non-government employer in the state — was a priority target. More than 1,800 students, doctors, professors and other employees signed an open letter in July calling on the medical giant to take a stronger stance against GOP proposals to restrict abortion, citing Ohio hospital groups and other states that have done so and arguing the institution is “in danger of complicity” if it does not speak out.
Greer Donley, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and signatory of the letter, said the lack of response was “incredibly disappointing,” though she acknowledged that recent threats by GOP lawmakers against government funding institution regarding its use of fetal tissue in medical research were likely a factor.
UPMC, which has more than 90,000 employees and brings in billions in revenue each year, did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, other state medical organizations have spoken up.
The Philadelphia College of Physicians, a group dating back to 1787, declined to speak to POLITICO but issued a statement when the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade telling lawmakers to abandon efforts to restrict abortion, warning bans would lead to “dangerous alternatives and devastating results”.
Doctors and the Democrats they support believe their message resonates.
A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll of likely voters released last week found Fetterman with a 6-point lead over Oz — though the race has narrowed a few points since June. Shapiro has a wider margin in his run for governor, leading Mastriano by 11 points. That poll also found abortion rights to be a top concern for voters, after the economy.
Another Monmouth University poll released last week showed voters trust Fetterman more than Oz on abortion rights by a wider margin than on any other issue – 48 to 29% – and Fetterman also leads for jobs and the economy 45-36%.
Fetterman and Shapiro are quick to argue that the subjects are inextricably linked and argue that the doctors have the credibility and seriousness to drive the point home.
“Historically, doctors haven’t been as active in political efforts,” Abella said. “But this election is different, because in this election our patients are at risk. And many of us are now coming off the sidelines.