Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion nationwide, advocates in Pennsylvania began to plan their efforts to defend or change the state’s laws.

Some noted that there are already efforts in the legislature to change the landscape here, adding that actions in neighboring states could have effects on accessibility of the procedure in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

Sue Frietsche, founder and director of the Western Pennsylvania Office of the Women’s Law Project, urged Pennsylvanians to encourage their state legislators to vote against Senate Bill 956, which would eliminate state constitutional rights to abortion services. 

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“The people of Pennsylvania lost their federal abortion rights today, but we did not lose our power over tomorrow. Don’t become disenfranchised, don’t give up and don’t stop being an activist,” Frietsche said in a press conference held via Zoom.

On the other side of the issue, Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said in a press release that the church would “continue to support and encourage legislation that protects unborn children.”

He added that the diocese offers medical and social assistance through Catholic Charities and works with other organizations to provide childcare and other basic needs.

“It is time for a healthier national conversation about pregnancy and parenting, one that recognizes the real difficulties and creates ways to support pregnant women and to welcome children,” Zubik said.

Advocates for abortion rights said they would promptly take to the streets.

Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania said they planned a protest from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. tonight at the City-County Building, Downtown. At 6 p.m., the Abortion Defense Committee will hold a protest at the same location, co-organized by the Black Anarchist Community Council, Justice for Jim Rogers, the Black Liberation Autonomous Collective of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Food not Bombs and the Revolutionary Women’s Study Group.

“We’re not surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. It does still give us this feeling — it’s hard to explain — it’s puzzling and jarring, and we’re full of rage and a will to fight,” said Kara Pool, a member of the Abortion Defense Committee.

“It’s going to affect clinic workers and clinics to a degree that we don’t yet understand,” she said. She added the decision was “an affirmation of the reality that already exists for people of color, working-class people and low-income people prior to the fall of Roe v. Wade.” 

Influx and access

Pennsylvania abortion providers anticipate seeing an influx of out-of-state abortion patients as neighboring states seek to restrict or ban services. They fear that influx will make it increasingly difficult for Pennsylvanians to access safe abortion services, advocates said.

Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania has always provided services to patients from neighboring states like Ohio and West Virginia, said Sydney Etheredge, the office’s CEO and president, in an interview with PublicSource. 

“We are continuing to provide appropriate services for all of our patients, but continuing to work with really understanding the nuances of what it’s going to look, what their states are going to put in place, how that could potentially impact us. We’re in uncharted territories now,” Etheredge said. 

“Particularly in marginalized communities, it already is incredibly difficult to access the resources and support of these types of services, and now in adding a layer of having to potentially travel and adding additional barriers to access this, it’s only going to make this harder,” she added.

Dr. Alhambra Frarey, an assistant clinical professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Philadelphia abortion provider, said at the press conference that the state’s healthcare system “will need to treat many more pregnant people who will be much sicker. This will have downstream effects on the neonatal ICU, on pediatrics and mental health providers, and potentially every other aspect of our healthcare system.”

From draft to law

In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the court’s decisions to defend and reaffirm the right to abortion services in previous decades — including in the landmark cases Roe in 1973 and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 — were wrong because the Constitution affords no protection to such services. 

Roe and Casey must be overruled, and the authority to regulate abortion must be returned to the people and their elected representatives,” Alito wrote.  

POLITICO leaked a draft of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, on May 2, with Chief Justice John Roberts confirming its authenticity in a press release the following morning. At the time, Roberts said the court’s decision was not its final position on the matter. Roberts subsequently joined the conservative majority on the court in the 6-3 decision adopting Alito’s reading as the law of the land.

“To hear the news that Roe v. Wade was overturned still hit me like a ton of bricks,” said La’Tasha Mayes, Democratic nominee for a state House seat representing Pittsburgh’s northeastern corner, and a reproductive justice activist, in a press release. “We have been operating under this false idea that women, transgender and non-binary folx have control over our bodies when the reality is – our government has control over our bodies.”

Political observers have been predicting for weeks that a Roe reversal would mark a major change in the nation’s direction and could alter the political calculus.

Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor of political science at Chatham University, said the reversal of Roe sends a message to people with uteruses that they’re not entitled to the same rights and privileges as those without. Helping others register to vote and participate in elections is likely the most important way people can respond to the decision, she said.

“We have a history of oppressing people and then expanding civil rights and liberties to have a broader base of people who share in the American ideal of equality,” she said. “This is a major retraction of that. Major.”

PA law won’t immediately change

Many states will ban abortions in short order.

Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act, a 1982 law, currently permits abortions up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy and only makes exceptions beyond that for extraordinary circumstances, like if the health of the person giving birth is in jeopardy. The law already implements restrictions on abortion access, requiring pregnant people to consult with a doctor at least 24 hours before having an abortion and minors to receive a parent’s permission. 

Efforts to further restrict abortion in Pennsylvania have been vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, in recent years, but his term ends in January 2023.

“Despite today’s action, Senate Democrats stand firm in our commitment to do everything we can to preserve and maintain legal and safe access to abortion in Pennsylvania,” wrote state Sen. Jay Costa, the Democratic leader, from Forest Hills.

“Abortion is healthcare,” Costa continued. “Any decision by the Supreme Court to take away healthcare and an individual’s bodily autonomy is, in our opinion, a violation of the Supreme Court’s authority and interpretation of our Constitution. 

Issue in key races

The selection of the next governor could shift power and the direction of abortion rights here.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, currently a state senator, posted on Facebook: “Praise The Lord!!!” And: “Life wins!”

He added in a statement that Roe was “rightly relegated to the ash heap of history,” and urged that the state “lead the nation in being a voice for the voiceless.”

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro, now the state’s attorney general, adopted the opposite position.

“Abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania, but whether it remains legal depends entirely on who we elect as our next governor,” Shapiro said in a release. “Our state Legislature is poised to pass a law banning abortion in Pennsylvania, and my extremist opponent Doug Mastriano would sign that bill into law as Governor.”

Shapiro vowed that if elected he would veto “any bill that restricts a woman’s right to choose.”

State Rep. Carrie Lewis DelRosso, R-Oakmont, who is the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, wrote on Facebook that she “will stand up for the sanctity of life of the unborn and the safety of the mother,” and support legislation that “restores the sanctity of life for all Pennsylvanians.”

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, called the decision one that “restores the American people’s ability to determine abortion laws through their elected representatives, as the Constitution requires.” He likened it to the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. “This ruling is a win for the unborn, the Constitution, and democratic governance.”

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a former Braddock mayor who is the Democratic nominee for the Toomey’s Senate seat, quickly sought to portray the ruling as a key issue in his race against Republican nominee Mehmet Oz.

“If there were any doubts left about what’s at stake in this race, it became crystal clear today. The right to an abortion will be on the ballot this November in Pennsylvania,” wrote Fetterman. “I will protect abortion rights. Dr. Oz will take them away. It’s that simple.”

Oz issued a statement saying that if elected he would “defend the sanctity of life” and “focus on the needs of mothers and children, for whom this decision can be the greatest gift of all.”

Republicans, Democrats weigh in

Public officials and advocates from Southwestern Pennsylvania reacted quickly to news of the decision.

“Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court is an attack on the civil and human rights of our entire country,” Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey wrote on Twitter. “Abortion is healthcare and denying the right to bodily autonomy of women, trans men, non-binary and disabled people in America is stripping them of their fundamental right to privacy.”

State Rep. Summer Lee, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House seat representing Pittsburgh, called it “a grim day for our fundamental rights, especially Black & Brown women & birthing folk who are going to be even more impacted by this decision, but we have to keep fighting,” in a statement on Twitter.

Sam DeMarco, chair of Allegheny County GOP and a county councilman, noted that overturning Roe has been part of his party’s platform since 1976. 

“It now falls to Pennsylvanians to discuss this matter rationally and with respect to all sides,” he said in a statement. “This is a time for very sober reflection on the real question underlying this half-century old dispute: what is a human life, and under what circumstances may we end it?” He called on the state’s officials “to decide on a course for the rest of this journey.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a father of six daughters and two sons, wrote on Twitter that the decision takes the nation “backwards.”

“It takes away my daughters’ autonomy and that of every other woman in this country. It’s staggering and unfathomable that attacks against women like this are coming from the highest court in the land.”

State Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-West View, said she was “completely devastated” by the ruling, but “ready to fight back.”

Correction: State Rep. Carrie Lewis DelRosso’s position was incorrectly reported in a prior version of this story.

Do you have questions or a personal story you want to share with PublicSource about the effects of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade? Know of events or people in Pittsburgh we should speak to about this ruling? Email selves@publicsource.org.

This reporting has been made possible in part through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

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Amelia Winger is a health reporter for PublicSource, with a focus on mental health. She is telling solutions-oriented stories that combine human experiences with broader context about data and policies....

Emma is a higher education reporter for PublicSource. In her role, she collaborates with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on strengthening higher education coverage in local communities. Emma...