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Pittsburgh abortion providers brace for West Virginia patients ahead of Supreme Court ruling

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Planned Parenthood location in downtown Pittsburgh.

Katie Quinonez was eating dinner with a colleague at the National Abortion Federation’s annual conference when she heard the news: A draft decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that would overturn the constitutional right to an abortion had leaked.

The news was gut-wrenching, she said.

Quinonez is the executive director of the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, the last remaining abortion provider in the state. The nonprofit clinic provides care to between 2,000 to 3,000 women per year for a variety of reproductive issues in addition to abortion. About half come for an abortion. The clinic provides some services on a sliding payment scale based on income, although not abortions, which can cost $450 to $1,000.

Quinonez was once one of those patients. She had an abortion in Charleston at 17 as a high school student and again when she was 22. She was worried that she would be judged for having a second abortion, but the way the staff at the clinic treated her stuck in her mind through the years: They gave her a heating pad, fed her snacks, encouraged her through the procedure and held her hand.

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“You don't always remember necessarily your appointment or your procedure, but you remember the person who holds your hands during the procedure,” she said. “And I think that that memory was just so ingrained in my brain .. .I said to myself, ‘That's my dream job.’”

Quinonez and one of the clinic’s doctors, with whom she had been eating at the conference, ended their dinner abruptly and went back to their hotel rooms. But Quinonez couldn’t sleep that night. She woke up at 5 a.m. to take a flight back to West Virginia to meet with her staff and plan for what was ahead.

It's really just gut-wrenching,” she said. “But at the same time we know that we still have patients that we need to care for and how important the work that we do is. So we keep showing up because we have to.

What would happen

It’s not perfectly clear what the legal status of abortion would be in West Virginia if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade.

There are multiple abortion laws on the books, some of which are contradictory, said Alisa Clements, the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, which covers four states, including West Virginia.

The state legislature has a supermajority of anti-abortion politicians and a governor who Clements believes would vote to ban abortion. The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health nonprofit organization, lists West Virginia as a state where further bans are likely to be passed. But whether state legislators would call a special session to do so right away, or wait until their regular session starts in January, isn’t clear, she said.

The extent of the public’s support for banning abortion in the state is much less clear, she said. In 2018, voters passed an initiative that removed the right to an abortion from the state’s constitution and prevented Medicaid patients from receiving funding for it. But the measure passed with only 52% in favor and 48% opposed. To Clements, this means West Virginians are more divided on the issue than the state’s political leadership reflects.

But to prepare for the possibility that West Virginians may soon have to travel out of state, Planned Parenthood is encouraging its supporters to donate to one of the two major abortion funds, Holler Health Justice and The Choice Fund, which is administered by Quinonez’s clinic.

Pregnant people can apply to these funds to help pay for some of the additional costs, which include things such as travel, hotels, child care and the procedure itself.

Many of these patients could end up in Pittsburgh, said Sara Dixon, the public relations manager for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. The commonwealth requires a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, so out-of-state people who plan to obtain an abortion in the city will likely have to at least stay overnight.

In part to help make this experience easier for what they expect could be “a surge” in out-of-state patients, Planned Parenthood is hiring a new “Patient Navigator” in Pittsburgh that will help people arrange their trips. It also is increasing its staff to care for additional patients, she said.

“We anticipate a drastic increase,” she said.

West Virginia to Pittsburgh

Some pregnant people in Morgantown, West Virginia already travel to Pittsburgh for their abortions, Quinonez said, because it’s closer than her clinic in Charelston. But she expects that this would only increase if abortion is banned in the state.

To try to stay financially viable, her clinic has begun offering gender-affirming hormone therapy and providing additional care for patients at risk of contracting HIV. It would lose half of its revenue if abortion is banned in West Virginia.

The clinic received substantial donations in the first couple of weeks after the draft opinion leaked, but those donations have since fallen off, she said. Her clinic has enough money to stay fully staffed for about a year, but she said some layoffs may be necessary after that.

“We have shown up for our community since 1976 to provide abortion care,” she said. “We need our community to show up for us.”

Quinonez said her staff is used to dealing with adversity, as the state legislature in West Virginia has passed some kind of abortion restriction nearly every year since 2015. She said they would continue to fight any further restrictions and would continue to provide care as long as they are allowed to.

“The most important message right now is that abortion is still legal,” she said. “That might change this month, but please, go get the care that you need.

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.