Say no to the status quo: It’s time to fight for a better post-Roe Pennsylvania | Tara Murtha

We’re relieved abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania, but this is not time to rest in relief

Dr. Sharee Livingston, chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at UPMC in Lititz, Lancaster County, speaks at a rally for abortion rights Monday, 10/24/2022, at the Pennsylvania Capitol.

By Tara Murtha

Just over a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated our federal right to abortion. 

Since then, I feel like I’ve been watching an endless zoetrope clicking off snapshot after snapshot of politically imposed suffering and pain: A 10-year-old sexual assault survivor forced to travel to Indiana for lifesaving care.

A Texas woman forced to “[experience] cruel emotional torture trying to access an abortion” that she “never wanted but desperately needed.” A sobbing cancer patient denied abortion care in Ohio. A Louisiana woman whose fetus had a cranial deformity incompatible with life denied the chance to choose compassionate termination because that specific condition wasn’t listed as an exception.

These horror stories are the direct result of a year where 1,572 state politicians—mostly men—were empowered to wedge their personal beliefs and hang-ups into laws that deprive women, children, and everyone capable of pregnancy of our basic human rights. 

I don’t share these particular stories because their reasons for seeking abortion care are more legitimate than simply not wanting to be pregnant.

There’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” abortion. I share them to showcase that there’s simply no level of human suffering that will stop the ruthless quest for more abortion bans, which are—to be clear—tyrannical government mandates installed against the will of the people and in defiance of medical knowledge.

I also share them to point out that “exceptions” typically don’t work; they’re just a placebo that lets anti-abortion lawmakers sleep at night.

As I read about tragedy and tragedy coming out of abortion-ban states, I simultaneously watched Pennsylvania’s anti-abortion lawmakers scheme to bring the same misery-producing, human-rights-crushing, pregnant-people-tormenting laws to Pennsylvania. 

Dobbs, of course, was just the first shot of a one-two punch: First, the U.S. Supreme Court would strip us of our federal right to abortion then state lawmakers would finish the job by eliminating our state-based rights.

Just 13 days after Dobbs, Pennsylvania’s anti-abortion lawmakers convened in the middle of the night to devise a plan to advance a constitutional amendment that would, if implemented, strip our reproductive autonomy rights out of the Pennsylvania Constitution, paving the way to a full abortion ban in Pennsylvania. 

Before Dobbs, most people didn’t give much thought to state constitutions and the rights they protect. After Dobbs, much of the abortion fight is focused on safeguarding reproductive autonomy rights enshrined in state constitutions—including here in Pennsylvania. 

As state-based legal advocates, we’ve always understood the fight was in the states. WLP attorneys filed Allegheny Reproductive Health Center v. Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (ARHC v. PA DHS) back in 2019.

The central claims are that the state’s Medicaid abortion coverage ban violates the Equal Rights Amendment and equal protection provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Critically, plaintiffs also requested that the court declare that abortion is a fundamental right under the Pennsylvania Constitution. 

We are currently awaiting a ruling.

But getting back to last summer: Absurdly, despite having proposed a six-week abortion ban in 2019 and then again in 2021 and supporting a gubernatorial candidate who suggested women who have an abortion should be charged with murder, the midnight raiders suddenly insisted that they didn’t want to ban abortion. In a pivot hard enough to break an ankle, they claimed they met in the middle of a summer night to rewrite the Pennsylvania Constitution to maintain the status quo. 

If you believe that, I have a gleaming new portion of I-95 to sell you. 

In any case, the anti-abortion constitutional amendment was ultimately blocked from advancing when Pennsylvanians voted anti-abortion leadership out of the Pennsylvania House for the first time in over a decade. (While it technically remains a threat until the end of this session, it’s not expected to advance.)

A year after Dobbs, the only thing more troubling than hearing anti-abortion lawmakers disingenuously claim they merely want to protect the status quo is hearing abortion-rights supporters say the same thing and mean it.

We’re relieved abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania, but this is not time to rest in relief.  The status quo is not good enough. 

And frankly, it is poised to get worse. 

The Status Quo: Reproductive Rights & Access in Post-Roe Pennsylvania 

In the 1970s, Pennsylvania had about 145 abortion providers. Today we’re down to 18 freestanding providers, with limited abortion care provided at some hospitals. Though Pennsylvania abortion law hasn’t changed, access is strained by an influx of patients traveling here from other states. Patient demand has surged 20-40% in Western Pennsylvania, where there are only two providers.

The current stack of 1,237 pages of Pennsylvania abortion law—which sits in the Crimes Code—is littered with anti-abortion government mandates that obstruct access and undermine public health. Physicians are forced to give a state-mandated lecture and 24% of the claims in the state’s “informed consent” booklet are inaccurate. 

Pennsylvania’s parental consent law, opposed by medical experts, forces young people to navigate compounded barriers to abortion care and disproportionately burdens young people who don’t speak English as a primary language, experience interpersonal violence, and/or live in multi-generational households.

Abortion bans correlate with increased maternal mortality, which has increased every year for the last three years, with Black women dying in childbirth 3-4x more often than white women.

Is this a status quo worth maintaining?

We need better in the budget too. The child poverty rate is more than 30% in some Pennsylvania counties, yet the state takes money meant to help kids in poverty, people with disabilities, and women fleeing domestic violence and uses it to finance anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) instead. 

The Shapiro Administration’s proposed budget allocates $6.2 million in general funds for CPCs plus a bonus of $1 million taken from TANF, a safety-net program meant to help low-income pregnant women, people with disabilities, and women fleeing domestic violence. 

Our Opportunity is Here and Our Time is Now

When we say Pennsylvania abortion law hasn’t changed since Dobbs, that means it hasn’t gotten any better yet either. 

But our opportunity is here. We can’t just protect what we have, we have to fight for what we need—urgently, this year, while we have an abortion-rights leadership running the state house and a new Governor who ran on abortion rights.

A sturdy start would be expanding abortion access by updating Pennsylvania law to allow Advanced Practice Clinicians to provide abortion. (We expect this legislation in the fall.)

With Justice Clarence Thomas urging the U.S. Supreme Court to “reconsider” marriage equality and contraception rights, we must pass the PA Fairness Act and House Bill 1140, a common-sense bill that promotes equitable, confidential access to affordable contraception.

While it’s budget season, we invite you to join us in calling on the Shapiro Administration to defund anti-abortion CPCs. If not, at least hold state-funded CPCs accountable for promoting misleading medical claims and rogue experimental treatments like “abortion pill reversal.”

As we head into the second year without a federal right to abortion, we have to make as much progress as we can to protect Pennsylvania women and families from anti-abortion overreach, reduce maternal mortality, and promote equitable access to the full range of evidence-based reproductive healthcare. 

In post-Roe Pennsylvania, the status quo is no place to rest — it’s quicksand.

Tara Murtha is the Director of Strategic Communications at Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal organization focused on advancing gender justice in Pennsylvania and beyond. Follow WLP on twitter @WomensLawProj

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.