Last week’s leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade has launched a new phase in the 50-year fight over the right to choose an abortion. As penned by Justice Samuel Alito, the ruling would erase the federal protection for abortion, leaving each state to decide if, how, and when Americans can legally terminate their pregnancies moving forward.
That means different things in different states: Some 13 states, including Texas, have enacted laws to automatically ban abortion if Roe falls. Others, including Colorado, have abortion protections integrated into state constitutions, while other states, such as California, are not only protecting abortion, they are expanding access.
Here in Pennsylvania, it’s … complicated.
That is also how Americans tend to be: According to a Pew Research study released last spring, 59 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and 39 percent oppose it in all cases, numbers that have remained unchanged for years. In Pennsylvania, a Franklin & Marshall poll in April found that 53 percent of voters say abortion should be legal in some circumstances, and 16 percent said it should always be illegal.
Abortion will remain legal here in the immediate term — in part because of Governor Wolf’s stance on the issue. But that could change if one of the Republican candidates for governor takes office next year. (All have said they are anti-abortion.)
Researchers have also found that what seems like hard lines are not. As Tricia C. Bruce, the lead researcher of the 2020 report “How Americans Understand Abortion,” wrote this week in Time: “Most ordinary Americans’ views on abortion are messy. Complicated. Contradictory, even. Not so easily categorized as ‘for’ or ‘against.’ This messiness means that the political and social implications of overturning Roe — which looks likely in the wake of a leak from the Court — remain unclear.”
This may be more true here in Pennsylvania than most anywhere in the country, as we await the Supreme Court’s final opinion and face a governor’s race that will heat up this summer.
Here’s what you need to know to understand the state of our state — and what you can do about it:
What does overturning Roe mean for Pennsylvania?
Abortion will remain legal here in the immediate term — in part because of Governor Wolf’s stance on the issue.
But challenges to reproductive choice in other states like Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi, coupled with what is happening at the Supreme Court, will further embolden anti-abortion legislators to forward restrictive legislation in Pennsylvania — especially if one of the Republican candidates for governor takes office next year. (All have said they are anti-abortion.)
How accessible is abortion in Pennsylvania now?
Pennsylvania is an abortion desert for many. About 90 percent of counties are without an abortion provider. This, according to Lindsey Mauldin, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern PA’s vice president of public policy and advocacy, predominantly affects Black and Brown communities, people who are LGBTQ+ and low-income communities.
Along with 32 other states, Pennsylvania requires patients to receive counseling 24 hours before getting an abortion. At this time, providers are required to give them state-approved materials that, according to advocates for choice, discourage abortion. Unlike some states, in Pennsylvania, the counseling can happen remotely, so patients only need to travel to the clinic for the procedure itself, though legislators have attempted to require multiple visits before an abortion.
Pennsylvania also limits public funding for abortion and private insurance coverage. The procedure is only covered in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest, which means most people must pay out of pocket, which ranges from $450 to $1,500 depending on the provider and how far along the pregnancy is. For many, this fee is too much.
State law also requires a parent, legal guardian, or judge to consent to a minor’s abortion unless a judge has granted a “judicial bypass.” Services are available to help minors with this if they a bypass is an option, but often the requirement is enough of a barrier that young people seek abortions out of state instead.
This, Mauldin says, is what she did when she had an abortion at 17. “I had to travel two hours out of state to obtain that service,” she says. “I was a privileged young lady and had the resources to make that trek. We say we have the legal right, but it’s not always accessible for everyone.”
Who gets abortions in Pennsylvania?
According to the Pennsylvania Health Department, more than 32,000 people had abortions in 2020, the last year for which there is data, and close to 31,000 in 2019. An Inquirer analysis last week broke down that number. About 14,000 White women and 14,000 Black women had abortions — which means, as the Inquirer noted, the rate among Black women is significantly higher since their population statewide is so much lower. Most abortions happen in the first trimester.
Perhaps as a reflection of Philadelphia’s size and the fact that abortion services are not available everywhere, most of them — nearly a third — were in Philadelphia.
What new changes are already underway?
Over the last 18 months, legislators have introduced six bills that would further limit access to abortion. They range from a ban on abortion after six weeks to requiring the burial of “fetal remains” from an abortion. The strictest is Senate Bill 956, a constitutional amendment introduced by Blair County Republican Judy Ward that adds language to the Commonwealth Constitution stating that “there is no right to abortion” and that nothing in the state Constitution “requires taxpayers’ funding for abortion.”
As a proposed constitutional amendment, this bill requires the Senate and the House to approve it in two consecutive legislative sessions in order to appear as a ballot initiative for voters to weigh in on. In January, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services approved the bill, and policy experts foresee the body bringing it to a total vote this year. That could put it on the ballot in 2023.
That puts a general ban on abortion directly in the hands of voters. Approval could pave the way for Pennsylvania to be among the most restrictive states in the country; a denial could signal that voters might also be open to an opposite amendment, formally legalizing abortion, at least in some circumstances.
How does that compare to other states?
Just like in Pennsylvania, restrictions and bans have been sweeping across the country. Today, there are 13 states with trigger laws, including Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Texas, and Wyoming that, if Roe officially falls, will immediately ban abortion; and 13 other states, like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Arizona that will likely move quickly to make it happen. So if Roe is overturned, over half the states in the country will be without an abortion provider, impacting more than 40 million women, according to a Guttmacher Institute report.
On the other hand, 14 states, including Montana, Iowa, and Minnesota have taken steps to protect abortion and people’s rights to reproductive autonomy. These states have abortion safeguards written into their constitutions to protect their residents’ rights to choose abortion. Other states like California, Oregon, New York, and Washington have expanded access and put legal protections, funds, and housing infrastructure to be safe havens, welcoming patients from other states to get the procedure there.
What help is there for people before they get pregnant?
Unlike most states, Pennsylvania does not require sex education in schools that is medically accurate and consent-focused. It requires only that students be taught about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. It also must stress abstinence as the only sure way to prevent STDs, which research from Columbia University concluded in 2017 does not work. On the contrary, the study found that “comprehensive sex education programs have favorable effects on adolescent behaviors, including sexual initiation, number of sex partners, frequency of sexual activity, use of condoms and contraception, frequency of unprotected sexual activity, STIs, and pregnancy.” A bill sponsored by Rep. Brian Sims last year would have made a more modern sex ed mandatory for schools, but it never made it out of the House Education Committee.
There are 30 states that require insurance plans to cover contraceptives, but Pennsylvania is not one of them. Minors in Pennsylvania are able to get free or low-cost medical contraceptives and counseling. (They can find a clinic at 1-800-84-TEENS.) And in Philadelphia, the Health Department will mail condoms for free to youth between the ages of 13 to 19.
So what can we do?
- As citizens, we can advocate for protections integrated into our state constitution, as other states have. Do not assume our legislators are aware that Senate Bill 956, to put the abortion ban on the ballot, is moving ahead — we need to let them know.
- We are entering a general election year with an open Senate seat and a Governor’s election. A critical way to protect reproductive rights and many other rights is to utilize our civic power and vote.
- Join the fund-a-thon and donate to the Abortion Liberation Fund of PA, which works closely with Planned Parenthood in PA to help underwrite the costs of abortion.
- Support private clinics like the Philadelphia Women’s Center, the first outpatient abortion provider in Pennsylvania. Small clinics are often run by volunteers and are under-funded.
- Sign Planned Parenthood’s Bans Off Our Bodies petition and attend a march on May 14.
- Need support finding an abortion provider or want to make sure your friends know where to go?Check out, Abortion Finder.
- Need support accessing abortion pills? Go to Your Abortion Choice, Philadelphia, to get help. Check out the Plan C Pills abortion guide.
- If you or someone you know needs support about their abortion, call Exhale for help.
Charity Tooze is a social impact consultant in Philadelphia working on the impact and partnership strategy for Crossing the Line, a docu-style podcast following the journey of women and individuals seeking abortion care in one of the most restrictive moments in American history produced by Population Media Center.
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