In early October, then-U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Upper St. Clair) made national news when it was revealed he had pressured his mistress to have an abortion (it turned out she wasn’t pregnant). The very day the story broke, Murphy voted in favor a national ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Widespread outrage against the purportedly pro-life Republican was swift, and later that month,he resigned from office.
But national reproductive-rights organization Reproaction didn’t want outrage around the scandal to dissipate. That’s why during the month of November it has paid for advertising on three digital billboards near Murphy’s former Allegheny County office, his home and his church. “ABORTION: Not just for your mistress!” the billboards read.
“We felt this was an important opportunity not just to highlight the hypocrisy, but the moral bankruptcy of a pro-life movement that claims to care about women and babies, and yet has a totally separate agenda,” says Erin Matson, co-founder and co-director of Reproaction. “They want abortion access for themselves, particularly when it helps cover up things in their political career, but they are working to block access to health care and prenatal care that would help pregnant women and infants.”
Reproaction’s statement is bold, but the reality is that every year, thousands of women are prevented from accessing abortion services for a variety of reasons, including government-imposed restrictions and limited resources. Eleven states restrict coverage of abortion in private insurance plans, and 27 states require women to wait a specified period of time before the procedure is performed.
“At Reproaction, we celebrate abortion access as a positive thing. When someone needs an abortion, and they’re able to quickly and easily access that, that’s something we should be proud of as a nation,” says Matson. “Abortion access is critical to equality and justice for all people and especially women. There is simply no such thing as equality and justice, if people can’t control whether and when and how they can become pregnant.”
Pittsburgh has seen some positive movement on the issue. Earlier this month, a federal judge upheld a city ordinance establishing a 15-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics to keep protesters at bay, and just last week, Pittsburgh City Council passed a resolution in support of state and federal funding for abortion access.
But there are still many hurdles. In December, activists believe, Pennsylvania legislators are poised to revisit a piece of legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, a bill similar to the one Murphy voted for at the federal level.
“I think we’re seeing a resurgence in anti-abortion sentiment, in part because we have a federal administration that doesn’t have regard for a women’s right to choose, let alone women’s access to birth control,” says Jessica Semler, public-affairs director of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. “We have a president who said during his campaign that there has to be some type of punishment for women who have abortions. In Pennsylvania, we have a 20-week abortion-ban bill that keeps coming back even though the public doesn’t want it.
“It really feels like opponents [of] women’s rights and access are feeling galvanized right now. It’s a scary time.”
In February 2016, Pittsburgh resident Kelsey Williams visited her doctor’s office for a standard 20-week ultrasound. She was pregnant with her second child and up until then had been having a healthy pregnancy.
“I’d already had one pregnancy, so I sort of knew what to expect,” says Williams. “But it was taking a while, and at the end, the ultrasound technician told us the baby had clubbed feet.
“It turned out that not only did the baby have clubbed feet and legs, but clubbed hands, wrists and arms, which was indicative of the fact that the baby wasn’t moving at all. Seeing those deformities was an indicator that there was a systemic neurological or muscular issue going on.”
Williams was 20 weeks and five days pregnant. Pennsylvania’s current law allows for abortions up to 23 weeks and six days. The full genetic testing for fetal abnormalities takes two weeks. And Pennsylvania has a mandatory 24-hour waiting period between consenting and the procedure. So even with the 24-week window, Williams was under pressure to make a decision.
“I received absolutely the best care and very objective and straightforward options,” Williams says. “I could choose right there to schedule a termination. I could continue the pregnancy, and they would support me the best they could, but they were very clear there were no cures for what they were seeing. Or I could have testing, wait for the results of the testing, and make my decision after that.”
Ultimately, Williams decided to have the genetic testing done, but to move forward with terminating the pregnancy.
“They told us in our case, while we might find an underlying cause for what we were seeing, there was nothing that could be discovered through the genetic testing that could change the prognosis,” Williams says. “For us, even though it was an incredibly difficult decision to make, that felt more clear-cut. I didn’t want to bring a baby into this world to know only pain and suffering, when I had the choice to end the pregnancy in what felt like the most humane way.”
Williams had to wait one week for the procedure. She says it was the hardest week of her life. The procedure was done over two days on Feb. 24 and 25. Afterward, she took a few weeks off work to recover.
“I was very lucky,” Williams says. “Everyone was incredibly supportive and gave me space and support. Not a single person I talked to questioned my decision. Amazing. It pulled me through.”
But then in the first week of April, Williams was made aware that a ban on abortions after 20 weeks had been proposed in the Pennsylvania state legislature.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Williams says. “My decision was being publicly debated about by people with no medical background and who have never personally experienced this, for what seemed like political gain.”
Since then, Williams has been sharing her experience to help educate people. She says abortions after 20 weeks are rare, and the vast majority of those cases are due to fetal anomalies. Medical professionals say 20 weeks is the earliest time many fetal abnormalities can be detected. And according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, in 2015 in Pennsylvania, there were 320 abortions after the 20-week window.
“This is less than 1 percent of abortions, and these are wanted pregnancies,” says Semler, of Planned Parenthood. “It’s usually a situation where the life of the mother is at risk, or the baby’s physical condition isn’t compatible with life. So, it’s really intervening in a personal decision a woman is making with her family at the most vulnerable time.”
A 20-week abortion-ban bill passed the state House in 2016. And this February, similar legislation was passed by the Pennsylvania Senate by a vote of 32 to 18.
“This legislation helps protect the health and well-being of a pregnant female,” Sen. Michele Brooks, who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement. “Although death rarely results, after the first trimester, a woman’s risk of death as a result of complications from the procedure increases dramatically. A woman is 35 times more likely to die at 20 weeks and 91 times more likely after 21 weeks, than if the procedure was performed in the first trimester. Additionally, the risk of death increases exponentially by 38 percent for each additional week of gestation.”
While activists don’t dispute the validity of these statistics, they say they are misleading. And activists are skeptical about the medical knowledge involved in crafting the legislation. Prior to the February vote, state legislators declined to hear public testimony from medical professionals.
“They didn’t want to have this debate out in the open, presumably because it’s not based in logic and it’s uniquely cruel,” Semler says. “It’s really problematic because so many different fetal abnormalities don’t show up until 20 weeks, and a lot of insurances don’t cover the testing until week 18 because you can’t see anything. This could lead to women having abortions who actually don’t need them. You could be forced to carry to term a baby who has a horrible quality of life, or you could potentially be voiding a healthy pregnancy, because you don’t have an option. The exception for the health of the mother is so small, you could lose your entire reproductive system, and it still wouldn’t be enough to meet the measure of a threat to your life or quality of life. That is devastating.”
The version of the legislation passed in February also included a complete ban on the abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation. And again, activists say the rhetoric around this portion of the legislation was misleading.
“That’s a pretty standard abortion procedure that women need to access,” says Lexi White, policy director for New Voices for Reproductive Justice, an organization based in Pittsburgh. “There’s evidence that it’s often used for high-risk pregnancies. But legislators were trying to characterize this very standard procedure as something that inflicts grotesque harm on an unborn child, but really, that is not medically accurate at all.”
Since the legislation was passed in February, it has failed to move forward in the House, likely because Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to veto it. But activists say it is set to re-emerge next month.
Despite the persistence of the 20-week ban and other anti-choice legislation, activists say they are seeing victories locally. New Voices recently worked with Pittsburgh City Council on a Will of Council resolution that calls for state and federal funding of abortion access. The resolution, passed on Nov. 20, asks lawmakers to ensure that all health-insurance plans, whether private or government-funded, cover abortion care. Specifically, it calls for the end of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion care, except to save the life of the woman, or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape.
“For 41 years, politicians have used the Hyde Amendment to deny coverage of abortion care to those enrolled in government-sponsored insurance programs,” says White. “That includes low-income individuals who qualify for Medicaid, residents who serve in the military or volunteer for public programs such as the Peace Corps, as well as folks who are serving time in federal prison.”
Currently, Pennsylvania does not use state funds to cover abortion care, but there are 17 states that do. Pittsburgh is the 13th municipality in the nation to call for action on the issue.
“It’s symbolic. It puts Pittsburgh on the map for taking a very overt stance on equitable coverage for abortion health care,” says White. “It affirms the momentum right now in the reproductive-justice and health-rights movement.”
In addition, earlier this month, a federal judge reaffirmed a city ordinance establishing buffer zones around abortion clinics.
“Without these barriers, we saw in years past during the height of the anti-abortion movement, people would literally block people from getting in the door,” says Planned Parenthood’s Semler. “Our patients deserve to get their health care without intimidation or threats or feeling physically at risk. It was really the city that really protected it, and we’re really grateful to have such a supportive city.”
Efforts like these are what Matson, of Reproaction, hopes to see more of. She says activists must be more proactive in the fight ahead to expand and protect abortion access.
“Something we are celebrating as a movement is we’re seeing a huge uptick in proactive, positive, pro-reproductive-rights legislation being introduced at the state level,” Matson says.
“We have the most anti-abortion administration in the history of the White House. There are constant attacks coming at both the federal and the state level, so this is the time to be vigilant.”