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Pittsburgh groups react after the Supreme Court ends the right to an abortion

The Supreme Court's decision to end constitutional protections for abortion will not have an immediate effect in Pennsylvania, where abortion has been legal under state law for decades. Still, Pittsburgh groups supporting abortion rights are denouncing the change while those on the other side are hailing it.

Signe Espinoza, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, the organization's political arm, decried the decision in a statement Friday.

“Today’s decision threatens those most basic freedoms, invades our privacy and questions our autonomy,” she said. “This decision allows states far more control over our bodies, but right now, abortion remains legal in Pennsylvania and PPPA will fight to keep it that way.”

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Espinoza said Planned Parenthood would continue its mission to keep abortions legal and make them accessible in Pennsylvania. She said abortion care should be provided to those covered under Medicaid as well.

“We’ve come too far to go back to pre-1973 unsafe health care, and we must continue the charge forward, not only for legality but for accessibility,” Espinoza said.

The organization has been gearing up to fight for abortion rights since the Supreme Court’s draft opinion leaked last month. She stressed that the effects of a post-Roe world will be hardest felt by people of color.

“Bans like these and what we’re going to see in this country is going to disproportionately harm Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color because of this country’s legacy of racism and discrimination. This is white supremacy in front of us,” she said. “This is just the beginning of a very long fight.”

Amy Scheuring, the executive director of the Women’s Choice Network, an anti-abortion group in Pittsburgh, said the group is celebrating the decision and is happy it was so decisive, with six justices voting in favor of overturning the right to abortion.

“We're very, very happy to have the decision about abortion put back into the hands of the people,” she said. “And we know that there's a lot of work in communication that has to happen in Pennsylvania.

In the short term, little will change in Pennsylvania, but Scheuring said the group would be taking additional safety precautions out of fear that reports of vandalism and violence could increase in the wake of the decision.

Jim Ludwig, a leader for LIFE PAC of Southwestern Pennsylvania, said he and his wife were preparing for a trip to visit their son when they saw the news on TV. Ludwig, who has been working to make abortion illegal for nearly 50 years, said he broke into tears. He stopped his wife to hug her and cry some more, he said.

“We've been waiting for this day for a long time,” he said.

Abortion remains legal in Pennsylvania

Decades of state law have kept abortion legal in Pennsylvania, including a 1989 law that was challenged all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s landmark 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling affirmed Roe v. Wade but also allowed states to put certain limits on abortions.

More recently, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature has been hostile toward abortion rights. But their efforts to restrict it have been blocked by Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. Wolf has vetoed three GOP-penned bills in five years that would have restricted abortion beyond the state’s 24-week limit, and he’s vowed to protect access until he leaves office in January 2023.

All eyes will turn to the Pennsylvania governor’s race in the fall, in which voters will choose between Democrat Josh Shapiro, who supports abortion rights, and Republican Doug Mastriano, who supports a total ban. Regardless of the outcome of that race, a proposal before the state Senate could avoid the governor’s veto and leave the future of abortion rights up to voters.

Senate Bill 956 is a constitutional amendment that would establish that there is no right to abortion or taxpayer funding of abortions. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Judy Ward said in amemo to the Senate that the bill comes on the heels of a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court that challenges Medicaid coverage for abortions.

“Forcing taxpayer funding of any elective abortion would necessarily result in a reallocation of funding priorities, potentially jeopardizing the real healthcare needs of the almost 3 million Pennsylvanians on Medicaid,” Ward argued in the memo.

The case, Allegheny Reproductive Health Center v. Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, argues that a 1982 law that bans the use of state dollars for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, is unconstitutional. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case later this year.

Amending the state constitution requires support from both the House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions before it would go to the voters. If passed, the earliest voters would see a referendum is 2023.

Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney and western Pennsylvania director for the Women's Law Project, said at a press conference Friday that between the governor’s race and the state constitutional amendment, the future of abortion rights in Pennsylvania is in the hands of voters.

“The future is being written right now,” she said. “The people of Pennsylvania lost their federal abortion rights today, but we did not lose our power over tomorrow. Don’t become disenfranchised. Don’t give up.”

Frietsche argued that Pennsylvania is a key battleground state for the future of abortions because nearby states are likely to enact bans. “What happens here in Pennsylvania over the next several months will be incredibly important not only to the safety and health of Pennsylvanians but for the entire country,” she said.

A patchwork of state laws

The only abortion provider in neighboring West Virginia has stopped providing abortions. Katie Quinonez, the executive director of the Women's Health Center of West Virginia, said abortion providers could immediately be prosecuted.

The clinic called up all of the abortion patients scheduled for the next three weeks to cancel. Some of the patients broke down and cried, some were stunned and some were confused, she said.

"At our clinic, we have been bracing ourselves for years but it does not mean we feel any less devastated," Quinonez said.

Greer Donley, an assistant professor who specializes in abortion and contraception issues at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, said abortion providers in Pennsylvania should feel comfortable continuing to provide care to local patients and those from out of state. But there may be new risks on the horizon, she said.

“The more that there is a connection to the state that bans abortion, the more legal risk the provider is taking,” she said. “If it is a provider in Pittsburgh who is offering care to an Ohio resident who comes in for a procedural abortion that day and then goes home, that provider is probably not experiencing too much risk right now.”

But if a provider offers a patient a medication abortion and the patient takes the medication in a state where abortions are banned, more legal risk arises. According to Donley, there is little case law that criminalizes out-of-state conduct.

This spring, the Missouri legislature seriously considered but didn't pass a bill that would have allowed private citizens to sue someone who helps a Missouri resident get an out-of-state abortion. On the other side, Connecticut altered its extradition statute to protect abortion providers from out-of-state summons.

Updated: June 24, 2022 at 4:38 PM EDT
Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.