A “pressure cooker” for the healthcare system. That’s how Sydney Etheredge, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, characterized the confluence of the Dobbs abortion ruling and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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And it’s worse for people of color, low-income patients, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups, she and three other abortion advocates discussed with a 50-person audience at an Oct. 24 panel hosted by the Center for Civil Rights and Racial Justice at the University of Pittsburgh.

Abortion bans have further exposed the medical industry’s emphasis on othering, Etheredge said. She explained that treatments and benefits are ascribed to specific groups of people, which makes them easy to ignore. The industry teaches people to say: “‘Medicaid, that’s for poor people. … Title 10? Oh, that’s just for poor women. … The Ryan White [HIV/AIDS] Program? Oh, no, that’s just for people with HIV,’” Etheredge said. “It’s all of this othering, othering, othering.”

When abortion rights were revoked, Etheredge said, the disparities began to spread. “It was no longer these marginalized, smaller populations,” she said. The Dobbs decision “is impacting women and anyone who could reproduce.” 

Etheredge and Nikkole Terney, the abortion care director at Allegheny Reproductive Health Center [ARHC], represented the region’s only two freestanding abortion clinics at the panel. They were joined by University of Pittsburgh law student Abby Deter, vice president of Pitt’s If/When/How chapter, and undergraduate junior Alexa Pierce, president of Pitt’s Planned Parenthood Generation Action [PPGen] club. 

Disproportionate impacts

Deter described the medical field as “androcentric, which means that white men are the standard. They are who we tailor our medicine to. And this contributes to the higher maternal mortality rate that women of color experience, which is only going to continue to increase when we’re being forced to carry pregnancies to term.”

In 2021, the abortion rate among Black and Latina women was 3.7 and 1.3 times higher, respectively, than their share among Pennsylvanian women. Black women accounted for 44% of abortions in the state while making up 12% of the female population. Hispanic women made up 11% of the state’s abortions and 8.4% of the female population. 

In Pittsburgh, the fetal mortality rate is two times higher for Black women compared to their white counterparts.

Deter also spoke about the heightened anxiety at the University of Pittsburgh regarding sexual assault. Students have been notified of three assaults on campus this year, the most recent of which occurred this month in the Cathedral of Learning. “Sexual assault is horrific in and of itself. But as a result of Dobbs, this trauma has an entirely new layer of fear added to it,” she said. Nine states currently ban abortion without exceptions for rape.

The speakers noted that the disparities in abortion care are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Black and Hispanic Americans experienced job and financial loss at disproportionate rates compared to white Americans. The panelists said this continues to impact the way families of color make family planning decisions and and are able to access abortion.

Support and next steps

Support has been the most important response to the Dobbs decision for Terney. The steady stream of volunteers, coupled with biweekly food and coffee from the Abortion Defense Committee, has gone a long way to keep spirits up at ARHC, where the staff has doubled from roughly 25 to 50 since the Dobbs decision.

“If we’re seeing 40 patients a day, we start at 7:45. I’ve been at the clinic until 11 at night, to make sure that every patient gets the care they need,” Terney said. That care spans from waiving the cost of an abortion to calling to check in after a 10-hour drive back home. Terney said ARHC goes beyond a transactional relationship between doctor and patient: “When you are in the clinic, you become my family, regardless of our differences.”

Nikkole Terney (right) discusses the emphasis on patient care at Allegheny Reproductive Health Center. (Photo by Sophia Levin/PublicSource)

Pierce also highlighted the positive “grassroots” response and support through fundraising and organizing around reproductive rights. She recalled how PPGen members flooded “into the clinic to help and support, as soon as the day of the overturning.” 

Etheredge encouraged the audience to pay attention to the impacts of abortion restrictions across the country, especially for women of color and the LGBTQ community. “Learn so we can build something better in place of Roe,” Etheredge said, “because we know the system won’t do it on its own.”

A common misconception about abortion care in Pennsylvania is that under Roe, it was “good times,” Etheredge said. 

This wasn’t the experience for abortion providers. Etheredge pointed out that Pennsylvania has some of the country’s strictest Targeted Regulations for Abortion Providers [TRAP] laws. 

The erosion of abortion access will only continue, she said. After the Dobbs decision, people thought, “‘This is it.’ But it’s been like death by a thousand cuts for abortion providers.”

Sophia Levin, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, is a freelance journalist and former PublicSource intern. She can be reached at sophia@publicsource.org.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation has contributed funding to PublicSource’s healthcare reporting.

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Sophia Levin, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, is a freelance journalist and former PublicSource intern.