Pgh City Councilmember proposes three bills to protect abortion access, providers in city

Councilmember Bobby Wilson said he designed the bills to protect access if the state Legislature bans abortion

By: - July 3, 2022 6:30 am

Pittsburgh City Councilmember Bobby Wilson (screen capture)

By Jake Dabkowski

PITTSBURGH —  Pittsburgh is the first city in the country to introduce legislation designed to shield abortion providers from out-of-state criminal investigations, Pittsburgh City Councilman Bobby Wilson said in a press conference Tuesday. Wilson has crafted and introduced three pieces of legislation to protect reproductive freedom in the city.

The proposed bills seek to “deprioritize” policing of potential abortion crimes, regulate advertising from crisis pregnancy centers, and shield abortion providers from outside criminal investigations. Wilson designed the bills to protect abortion access in the event the Pennsylvania legislature bans abortion.

Legislation similar to Wilson’s proposed bills has been proposed in several states, and passed into law in California and Connecticut, according to Greer Donley, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh who spoke at the press conference.

“You see these popping up, but Pittsburgh is the first city to do so,” Donley said.

The proposed sheild law would direct Pittsburgh city employees, law enforcement and agency officials to not comply with any out-of-state investigations for abortion provision that are legal in Pennsylvania.

The introduction of these bills follows the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center, which overturned the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. During a recent news conference discussing the bills, Wilson referred to the Dobbs v. Jackson decision as “horrific.”

“The Supreme Court of the United States took away the constitutional right of every American, every Pennsylvanian, every Pittsburgher to choose what happens to their body,” Wilson said in a statement.

“Pittsburgh is going to be a haven for abortion care in the region,” Donley said during the press conference. Donley is cited in the dissenting opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.

“The city of Pittsburgh, I think, will definitely be a haven as other states have imposed their restrictions,” said Grace Ferguson, an obstetrician-gynecologist in the Pittsburgh area, who also spoke at the press conference.

Pennsylvania has more access to abortion services than many other states, yet that access is not as widespread as people think, according to Ferguson.

“I want to highlight that it’s hard already to provide abortion care in Pennsylvania,” Ferguson said. “In Pittsburgh we have two hospitals and two clinics, and then it’s really pretty quiet between here and Philadelphia. So I think on some level people believe you can get an abortion anywhere you want, and that’s really not true.”

Should the state of Pennsylvania pass a ban on abortion, Willson’s proposed bill would go into effect to instruct the Pittsburgh Police to “deprioritize enforcement of any abortion related crimes,” according to Wilson.

Wilson compared this bill to the city of Pittsburgh’s decriminalization of marijuana, which leaves the decision to charge or not charge individuals for marijuana offenses up to individual officers. Wilson referred to decriminalization as “an effective approach.”

While decriminalization of marijuana has been effective at lowering the number of charges for marijuana related offenses, an audit of the Pittsburgh Police found that Black individuals made up a disproportionate 85 percent of those still charged. Last month, City Controller Lamb said in a press conference when he released the audit’s findings,  that while the audit only focused on marijuana offenses, “if there’s inequity at that level that there’s inequity at a lot of other levels as well.”

Abortion crimes “would be on the bottom of the list” for what police would be instructed to prioritize, Wilson said during the press conference. However, he said, police would still be able to charge individuals at their own discretion.

Wilson is also seeking to regulate advertisements from crisis pregnancy centers through proposed legislation. Crisis pregnancy centers, also referred to as pregnancy resource centers, are not licensed health care providers and often encourage women to not pursue abortion, or choose carrying the pregnancy to term and giving the baby up for adoption.

During the press conference, Sydney Etheredge, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, referred to the pregnancy crisis center advertising as “misleading” and “incredibly concerning, especially in times like these.”

“There’s so much information out there that can be incredibly confusing for patients,” Etheredge said. “We want to make sure that anyone who walks through our doors is getting fact-based, truthful information.”

Wilson’s proposed bills do not infringe on these organization’s first amendment rights, Wilson and other speakers emphasized in the press conference.

“States do have the ability to regulate deceptive health advertising,” Donley said. “The law is very strictly tailored to really only go after deceptive healthcare advertising, which is what crisis pregnancy centers do.”

“Their goal is to really push folks away from accessing abortion care,” said Signe Espinoza, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates. “They’re not real health centers, they do not provide real health care.”

Wilson’s proposed bills will be discussed in the Pittsburgh City Council Standing Committee on Land Use and Economic Development this week. If there are no holds then they are expected to be voted on by the city council the following week.

Jake Dabkowski is an editorial intern through the Pittsburgh Media Partnership from Point Park’s Center for Media Innovation. He can be reached at [email protected]. He wrote this story for the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, where it first appeared. 

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