As spring gave way to summer in 2022, Sydney Etheredge and Dr. Amy Collins sensed an impending political earthquake that would upend the lives of countless women across the country.
Months earlier, they’d listened to oral arguments in the case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging abortion rights, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Both women run clinics that provide reproductive health services — Etheredge is CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania; Collins is COO and medical director of Allegheny Reproductive Health Center — and they felt the court’s conservative justices appeared ready to overturn the 1973 case guaranteeing the right to an abortion.
And so on Friday, June 24, as the court prepared to recess for the summer, Etheredge sat at a desk in her Downtown Pittsburgh office and logged onto a website that tracks the court’s decisions. Early in the day, there was no news.
That changed when she refreshed the page shortly after 10 a.m. “In one click, our rights vanished,” she said.
The Supreme Court had indeed stripped away the constitutional right to an abortion. The news shook Etheredge.
“As a Black woman in this country, I felt it deeply on a personal level,” she said. She had no time to fret, though. Etheredge immediately shifted into “crisis mode” — her staff updated the organization’s website to assure women that, in Pennsylvania, abortion remained legal and that they could continue to make appointments. And then she prepared for the coming storm.
In East Liberty, Collins and her team prepared, too. But first, they paused.
“We had a 15-minute huddle where we all centered ourselves,” Collins said. “We knew it was going to be a wild ride going forward.”
And it was. Some states moved quickly to prohibit abortion. Ohio acted with head-spinning speed and within hours enacted a restrictive law. Women in that state immediately began calling Pittsburgh clinics.
“We got call after call after call,” Collins said. “You can imagine our phone staff, on the line with desperate people all day, saying, ‘I need this, I need my appointment. What do I do?’ It was hard because at the beginning we didn’t always have the answers. We were sort of flying by the seat of our pants. We had planned for it, but it’s different when you’re in it and you have to react.”
For weeks, staff members worked 12 to 13 hours each day to provide care, she said. “We truly saw how important access is and what happens when the access goes away.”
Since the Dobbs decision, Etheredge said, Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania has experienced a sharp increase in out-of-state patients seeking care — up from 16% to 25%. Most of those women are from Ohio and West Virginia, but some come from as far as Texas and Florida.
Etheredge and Collins told their stories during a panel discussion Thursday focusing on the state of abortion rights and reproductive freedom in Western Pennsylvania. The discussion in McCandless was hosted by U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Aspinwall, who kicked off the event by saying the “far right is doubling down on anti-abortion extremism.”
One example he noted: Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s blockade on top military nominations to protest the Defense Department’s policy of granting leaves and paying travel costs for service members seeking reproductive care that includes abortions. Tuberville’s protest has left the Navy, Army and Marine Corps without Senate-confirmed leaders.
The Republican party’s stance is at odds with voters’ wishes, Deluzio said. He and other panelists pointed out a few recent examples: The red state of Kansas voted overwhelmingly last year to reject a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited abortion. And in Ohio, voters last week rejected a Republican-backed measure that would have made changes to the states’ constitution more difficult. The measure was seen as an effort to thwart an upcoming vote on a constitutional amendment ensuring women’s reproductive rights.
“In Ohio, what we’re now seeing from our Republican colleagues are attempts to change the rules when it comes to democracy,” said state Rep. Arvind Venkat, D-McCandless, who represents Pennsylvania’s 30th district. “This goes beyond abortion rights. It goes to what type of country we’re going to be and what type of democracy we’re going to have.”
In states that prohibit abortion, attempts by lawmakers to carve out exceptions to the law — allowing an abortion, for example, if the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother — have failed on a practical level, said Venkat, an emergency physician. Medical professionals in those states won’t perform abortions because physicians are “scared out of their minds that they’ll be prosecuted,” he said.
Although abortion is legal in Pennsylvania, it remains so only because Republican politicians have been unable to pass measures that would make the procedure illegal.
“What’s stopping them is that Democrats control the State House — by one vote,” Venkat said. “I have [Democratic] colleagues that go rock climbing, and I say, ‘Don’t do that! You need to wear bubble wrap.’ That’s how tenuous it is.”
On the federal level, codifying the right to abortion won’t happen in the current Congress because Republicans control the House of Representatives. “The sad reality is, given the current Republican majority, we can’t get a vote on anything to protect reproductive freedom,” Deluzio said.
Collins said it’s important to destigmatize the procedure and reclaim what she calls the “moral high ground” on the issue.
“Lots of different people have abortions,” she said. “People who don’t have children, people who do have children. They do it for financial reasons, for health reasons. There are so many reasons why people seek this care. It’s important that we continue to highlight this in conversations, to shift from the idea that abortion is happening to young women, unwed and having promiscuous sex. This is not what I’m seeing in my practice every day.”
Etheredge said she sees hope in younger voters who see abortion rights as connected with other issues such as health care, economic rights, civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights and civil rights.
Previous generations saw civil rights as a movement for Black people, she said. The anti-war movement was for men, and abortion rights by women.
“We allowed those silos to occur, and at times we’d throw movements under the bus to benefit another,” she said. That’s not the case with younger voters, she said. “Young people see so many of these issues as intersectional and connected, and that’s going to fight some of this polarization.”