Tucked near the fireplace in Helen Cindrich’s living room is a brown chair, worn from decades of use. She’s wanted to replace it for years, but it’s become her signature spot — her children call it “mom’s chair.”
On the morning of June 24, Cindrich was sitting in her chair when she received a call with news that brought tears to her eyes. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization had overturned constitutional protection for abortion services, and Cindrich couldn’t believe it was real.
She’d been waiting, praying, protesting for this day for 50 years.
“It was joy,” said Cindrich, a North Versailles resident and the executive director of People Concerned for the Unborn Child, a Brookline-based group that advocates against abortion. “I was thinking about all that had come before, all that we worked for. And it was stunning. Just how could it be? But it is, and God is so good.”
But as Cindrich celebrated the day’s arrival, Rev. Dr. Judith Moore said the morning of June 24 marked the beginning of a “grieving cycle,” creating another barrier to keep people of color from accessing necessary services for their health and well-being. Since then, she’s seen the cycle give way to a state of constant numbness.
“Even in our numbness, we still have this hope, this faith that we’ll keep fighting, we’ll keep connecting, we’ll keep collaborating, working toward getting at the table and having a voice,” said Moore, a retired pastor who serves as the CEO and founder of Sisters Saving Ourselves Now based in New Kensington. “Even in the midst of thinking it’s a hopeless situation, we still have that hope.”
Though a leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s opinion provided some warning, the Dobbs decision has unleashed a torrent of emotions for birthing people across Western Pennsylvania. For five women, it’s encompassed everything from elation to feelings of being trapped, outraged or “ashamed of being American.”
Abortion services are still legal in Pennsylvania up to the 24th week of pregnancy, but some state legislators are seeking to change that. The state Senate and House passed a bill on July 8 that began the process of amending the state constitution to explicitly remove any right to abortion or to taxpayer funding for abortions. The amendment must pass both chambers of the legislature again during the 2023-24 session and receive approval from a majority of voters before it can take effect.
If adopted, the amendment could have an even wider impact on Western Pennsylvanians’ mental health than the Dobbs decision, said Jacqueline Ellison, an incoming professor of health policy and management at the University of Pittsburgh.
“The Dobbs ruling isn’t going to change the need for abortion. People won’t ever stop needing abortion,” Ellison said. “It’s just going to further stigmatize and criminalize this essential health care that people need.”
The duality of anger
Every January, Cindrich bundles up and travels to Washington, D.C., to take part in the March for Life, a national protest against abortion. In the past 50 years, she’s only missed the march about three times.
Beyond her belief in the cause, she marches year after year because she loves the atmosphere. Amid the biting wind and bustling crowd, she looks forward to stopping for coffee and chatting with people of all ages who share her values.
“It’s fun,” Cindrich said. “You’re running into people you know and love and haven’t seen since last year.”
Cindrich’s commitment to advocating for her beliefs has made it difficult to watch the wave of protests against the Dobbs decision. She’s attended a few to pray that the pro-abortion protestors receive help, but it hurts to see them “not at peace with themselves.”
“It’s a lot of anger, jealousy, the ugly side of humanity,” Cindrich said. “It doesn’t make you want to be part of what they’re doing. It makes you wish that they could hear the truth.”
Alicia Salvadeo said the anger fueling protests against the Dobbs decision represents something else — a “raw desire to fight back.”
A high school teacher and organizer for Socialist Alternative Pittsburgh, Salvadeo recounted attending a protest in front of the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh the day after a draft of the Dobbs decision leaked in May. Speakers exclaimed the country was moving backward as thunderstorms howled behind them. It felt like a metaphor.
“A lot of women and young people had a lot of rage that they probably felt mirrored in the weather at the time,” Salvadeo said.
Anger can have a range of benefits, including building confidence to overcome fears or respond to threats. When sustained for a long time, however, it can increase the risk for mental illnesses like depression and physiological issues like increasing the risk for heart disease, strokes and hypertension.
Inspired by her classroom curriculum, Salvadeo has looked to successful protest movements throughout history as a reminder to channel her rage toward finding ways to spread the word about protests, take up clear demands at protests and plan actions beyond protesting.
“It really comes down to ordinary people building massive organizations that work together to fight back,” Salvadeo said. “The kinds of things we’re learning about in history class right now are the kinds of things that we need to bring back today.”
Disparities in the burden of pain
Anger was a knee-jerk reaction for Jacqueline Hill in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, but underneath was something more difficult to confront: deep sadness, especially as she considered the decision’s impact on Black birthing people. Although Hill is past childbearing age, she worries how the decision will affect the well-being of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“Low-grade depression, I think, resides within a lot of us, even though I don’t know that we acknowledge it as such,” said Hill, the senior policy advisor for the Pittsburgh-Mon Valley Black Women’s Roundtable. Black people are “dying at a rate of three times that of other populations from pregnancy-related complications. This has to have an impact on our mental health.”
Not only the higher risk of fatal complications, but also the elevated demand for abortion suggests that the Dobbs decision may weigh heavier on the Black community. On a per-capita basis, Black people were nearly seven times more likely than white people to seek abortions in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available.
All abortion seekers face several obstacles to receiving the procedure, including finding transportation to an abortion clinic, requesting time off from work and paying for the procedure, which can cost anywhere from $450 to $2,500 out of pocket. Ellison said overcoming these obstacles is particularly challenging for Black birthing people, who are more likely to experience poverty and pregnancy-related health complications.
The barriers disproportionately affecting Black abortion seekers have pushed Moore to support the right to choice. For her, the Dobbs decision is an acute reminder of Black birthing people’s long fight for health equity.
“We’ve been sounding that alarm for so long, and little by little our rights have been taken away,” Moore said. “Nobody came to our rescue. So now that this has come up — reversing Roe v. Wade — the voice of that pain sounds louder.”
Hill fears a state ban on abortion in part because of how law enforcement officials would carry it out, worrying police could disproportionately target Black women.
“Now we’re in the system. You lose your children, you could go to jail and now economically I can’t take care of myself,” Hill said.
If a ban takes effect, Hill also fears for abortion seekers’ digital privacy. Information from period-tracking apps, Google searches and location trackers could be used to prosecute people for violating a ban.
“If they are able to capture this kind of information because they are trying to over-criminalize us, that will reduce the number of people who are willing to share and participate in studies that could ultimately improve our health over time,” Hill said.
Marvelous or powerless?
Central to Cindrich’s celebration of the Dobbs decision is her belief that bringing new life into the world is “marvelous,” making it “cruel” for a pregnant person to have an abortion. She thinks the decision is self-centered.
But for Muffy Mendoza, having an abortion was one of the hardest decisions she ever made.
She struggled with feelings of shame and guilt as she tried to balance her beliefs about the sanctity of life and her right to decide what happens to her own body. Ultimately, she made the choice because she wanted to give herself the best opportunity for success. She already had a son and was preparing to begin college for the third time while facing poverty and grieving for her father, who was killed in Homewood a few months prior.
Now a mother of three, Mendoza still cherishes the memory of “the baby I gave back.” In the month since the Dobbs decision, she’s reflected on her own experience with abortion, and it’s brought up an emotion she’s rarely felt — powerlessness.
“Just knowing that there’s going to be other young women in that position, the same position as me, makes me feel like I won’t be able to help her,” said Mendoza, the founder of Brown Mamas, a support group that focuses on the emotional and social health of Black mothers.
Moore fears the Dobbs decision — and any resulting restrictions on abortion access — will make birthing people feel trapped and hopeless.
“Feeling like there’s nowhere to go, there’s no one to go to, there’s no one who cares to listen to my story. Nobody wants to hear about my heartbreak,” Moore said.
Research from the University of California San Francisco shows that being denied an abortion can result in worse financial, health and family outcomes. Restricting access to safe abortions can also increase anxiety, lower life satisfaction and lower self-esteem. Voluntarily having an abortion is not linked to mental health problems.
Ellison expects to potentially see a rise in postpartum depression as more people give birth, including to children for whom they had not planned. Abortion bans enacted in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision could also exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions for pregnant people, she said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw, at least in the short term, increases in depression and anxiety among women — and people with the capacity for pregnancy generally — especially those living in states that are hostile to abortion and states that are going to ban abortion,” Ellison said.
As a teacher, Salvadeo worries about the hopelessness she’s seen among young people since the Dobbs decision was handed down. Many of her students hold progressive values, and she fears they’ll become disillusioned with democracy as they look at the stagnating progress of modern movements.
“They have questions about the role of protests. They have questions about the role of voting when they’re seeing that it hasn’t actually protected anything over the past couple of years,” she said.
Her job provides her with an opportunity to talk to her students and debunk their fears. She teaches them about the qualities of successful, sustainable protest movements, which can help them learn to incorporate those characteristics into their advocacy.
Salvadeo’s class discussions of the Dobbs decision are just one way that Allegheny County residents have come together to address the decision’s potential consequences and the feelings it’s prompted.
Hill and Moore have collaborated over the past month to host events that speak to the concerns of Black women in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision. Their symposiums bring together economic experts, therapists and ordinary people to dispel misinformation about abortions and brainstorm ideas for how Black women can address the Dobbs decision and disparities in abortion access.
Mendoza has found that shifting conversations away from the Dobbs decision — even for a few minutes — can also be helpful in maintaining a sense of community among birthing people.
Since the decision was handed down, she’s observed visceral judgment of people who choose to have abortions while scrolling social media, watching the news and in everyday conversations.
“It just disgusts me because if you’ve never walked in a woman’s shoes who’s had an abortion, you just don’t have the right to have an opinion about it,” Mendoza said. “And you don’t know the consequences and implications of what it really means for a woman.”
Mendoza’s Brown Mamas group includes mothers with a range of opinions about abortion. Since the Dobbs decision, they’ve chosen to hold off on discussing their differences.
“A lot of our moms are typically coming into our support group meetings because they have some type of emotional distress that they’re already dealing with,” Mendoza said. “We didn’t want to pile on.”
Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.
This reporting has been made possible through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
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