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Anti-abortion activists gather in Pittsburgh on anniversary of Dobbs ruling

People with anti-abortion signs in a crowd.
Steve Helber
Anti-abortion advocates celebrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 24, 2022, following the court's decision to end constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years.

The one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion is Saturday, and many of the anti-abortion movement's most ardent supporters will be marking the historic occasion in Pittsburgh.

The National Right to Life, a federation of 50 state affiliates, is hosting its annual convention at the Hyatt Regency hotel adjacent to the Pittsburgh International Airport. Throughout Friday and Saturday, conference-goers will attend sessions that speak to this seismic shift in reproductive health care.

Topics include “Political Messaging in Post-Dobbs America,” “Mastering Media Relations in a Post-Roe World,” and "Pro-Life Success in the States: Strategies for the Post-Roe Era."

While it will be a celebratory weekend for many, the conference is an opportunity for anti-abortion activists from across the country to gather and share strategy at a time when access to the procedure is in constant flux now that its regulation rests with state governments.

"We're not suddenly, you know, shaking hands and congratulating each other on a job well done," said National Right to Life spokeswoman Laura Echavarria. "Our job actually has become more complicated moving forward."

Echavarria says Pittsburgh was selected as the site of this year's conference before the court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which reversed the half-century precedent of abortion being protected under federal law.

Still, the city is an interesting venue for the conference. Almost immediately after Dobbs, the two Pittsburgh clinics that provide the lion's share of abortion care in Western Pennsylvania were inundated by out-of-state patients, making the city a haven for people seeking reproductive health care.

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Dobbs effects in Pittsburgh

Allegheny Reproductive Health Center, the largest provider of abortion care in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia, saw a 500% increase in appointment demand among its non-Pennsylvania patients. Many were from Ohio, which instated a six-week ban immediately after the Dobbs ruling. A judge has since put that ban on an indefinite hold.

Though demand from Ohio patients has waned, Allegheny Reproductive Health CEO Dr. Sheila Ramgopal says patients are now coming from a wide variety of states, including Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee and Indiana.

"These are people coming from all over, whether they have a connection in Pittsburgh or it was faster to get an appointment with us," said Ramgopal. The clinic increased its hours to ensure that people can be seen within a week of requesting an appointment.

The demand has meant that some people cannot get care from their closest abortion provider. Dr. Sarah Horvath, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Penn State who also practices at Planned Parenthood Keystone, has treated more patients from Western Pennsylvania since last June.

People who are most likely to travel for an appointment are more likely to be from marginalized communities, said Miracle Jones, director of policy and advocacy at 1Hood Media, the Black social justice collective in Pittsburgh. Because Black Pennsylvanians are more likely to work at jobs with little to no paid sick leave or vacation time, limited availability can make abortion care less accessible, Jones said.

Because laws in other states are frequently changing, as is the case with Ohio, Jones says many of the people she serves are confused by abortion’s current legal status in Pennsylvania. This is especially concerning in communities that are over-policed and experience substandard health care due to racism.

“A lot of people are not aware of what's provided, and what they can and cannot ask, and what they can and cannot talk to their medical providers about,” said Jones.

Abortion’s post-Dobbs future in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has long been considered an abortion-hostile state due to certain laws, such as a mandated 24-hour waiting period and minors needing parental consent. Yet, unlike some places, the commonwealth has not created or changed any laws governing abortion since the Dobbs ruling.

Meredith Parente said she hopes that will change. She said she sees the prohibition of abortion in Pennsylvania as an uphill battle but notes that many people didn't believe that the constitutional right to abortion would ever be struck down.

"When I heard the news [about Dobbs,]" said Parente, "I dropped on the floor and wept because I have done this for a long, long time."

As the director of The Magee Project, Parente advocates for UPMC's women's hospital to stop providing abortions. She'll be tabling at the National Right to Life convention to recruit new members.

Parente has been a fixture in West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania anti-abortion movements for decades but has never been to the National Right to Life's annual convention. She's looking forward to connecting with new people who might offer unique perspectives that will be helpful to her work in Pittsburgh.

Like Parente, Allegheny Reproductive Health's Sheila Ramgopal doesn't see abortion as a settled issue in Pennsylvania. Though Gov. Josh Shapiro is a vocal supporter of abortion rights, Ramgopal notes that laws in neighboring states are frequently changing. Legislation on the federal level may eventually impact abortion care in Pittsburgh, depending on how power shifts in Washington.

"We just have to continue to remain really fluid and stay on our toes so that we can maintain this access," they said.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.