While Pittsburgh has seen recent victories on abortion access, activists say a persistent piece of legislation could roll back a woman’s right to choose | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

While Pittsburgh has seen recent victories on abortion access, activists say a persistent piece of legislation could roll back a woman’s right to choose

“It really feels like opponents of women’s rights and access are feeling galvanized right now.”

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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.”


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