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Providers warn abortion may not always be legal in Pa.

A large blue sign for Planned Parenthood.
Steve Helber

Abortion remains a safe and legal procedure in Pennsylvania — but that may not always be the case, panelists warned during a discussion on reproductive freedom Tuesday in McCandless.

The panel was hosted by U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, a freshman Democrat who represents a swing district comprising the entirety of Beaver County and northwestern parts of Allegheny County. State Rep. Rob Mercuri, one of Deluzio’s two Republican challengers for the 2024 election, is a cosponsor of a so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill, which prohibits an abortion if a heartbeat can be heard from a fetus — this is usually possible at about six weeks of gestation through a transvaginal ultrasound.

Just two of Pennsylvania’s 18 freestanding clinics that provide abortion care are west of Harrisburg — both are in Pittsburgh, and both were inundated with out-of-state patients after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.

“The day after [the ruling] came down, we got 500 phone calls, mostly from patients mostly in Ohio, who had appointments that week to have an abortion,” said Dr. Amy Collins, the medical director of Allegheny Reproductive Health Center. To meet demand, her staff worked 12- to 13-hour days.

Some of the pressure on Pittsburgh’s abortion providers has died down now that Ohio’s six-week abortion ban is on hold, though patient volumes remain higher than what they were before the ruling.

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Despite the need for more abortion care, it’s difficult to open new facilities in Pennsylvania due to onerous regulations, said Sydney Etheredge, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. These include a 24-hour waiting period and requirements on room and corridor sizes, she said. Also, she noted the fact that in Pennsylvania, Medicaid and plans purchased through the state’s insurance exchange do not cover the cost of an abortion, except for cases of rape, incest or if the pregnant person’s life is endangered.

Still, abortion access could have been further restricted if last November’s election had gone differently: Democrats maintained control of the governorship and won a majority in the state House by just one seat.

“We are really never safe, and I think it’s important that people know that,” said Etheredge.

That’s a sentiment echoed by state Rep. Arvind Venkat, who is a practicing emergency medicine physician. He said he recently cared for a woman who had gone to an unlicensed provider for an abortion and then almost died from an infection. Because his patient didn’t speak English, the woman may not have known where to seek safe care or perhaps was unable to afford a legal abortion. Venkat worries that in the future he’ll see more patients in similar situations.

“We, as legislators, cannot write into statute the permutations and nuances that come up with reproductive health care, specifically with abortion health care,” said Venkat.

Some of the demand on Planned Parenthood and Allegheny Reproductive might ease early next month when the Women’s Health Center of Maryland opens its doors. It will be near Cumberland, about a 75-minute drive east of Morgantown, West Virginia, and two hours southeast of Pittsburgh.

Etheredge and Collins said they welcome new providers coming into the region. Between paying for the procedure and then the cost of travel, people who otherwise might not be able to access the care will be served by the new facility.

Corrected: August 16, 2023 at 10:06 AM EDT
The Pennsylvania state House has a one-vote Democratic majority, not the state Senate.
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.