Western Pennsylvania Abortion Clinics and Advocates: ‘We can’t do this work alone’

Written by Grace DeLallo
Photos by Romita Das
April 21, 2023

Caity Bell is one of the first people patients talk to when they schedule an abortion. Bell, a phone flex at Allegheny Reproductive Health Center, said they’ve experienced a wide range of cases at their job. 

“I’ve unfortunately had a number of calls where people are in active domestic violence situations happening at that moment… Without getting too specific, people who are being followed around by somebody who is chasing them around their house — it can get pretty scary,” Bell said. 

But there are “happy, heartening moments" too. 

“People who I’m able to help get them access when they wouldn’t be able to otherwise, especially with other patients that we’re seeing traveling from other states — Florida, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina … We’ve seen patients from almost every state south or midwest of us,” Bell said. “The heartening thing for me is seeing the network of support that has come out of the post-Roe decision.”  

Bell is one of the many people across Western Pennsylvania — advocates, providers, lawyers, students and more — working to provide and improve abortion access, a procedure that has become increasingly complicated after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade over the summer. Two clinics in the Pittsburgh area in particular — Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and ARHC — are grappling with an influx of patients arriving from states with bans. 

Sydney Etheredge, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, noted that there are only two abortion clinics west of Harrisburg. At the best of times, she said it’s an “inconvenience” for women, but at the worst of times, it’s “life or death.” 

Etheredge, a Pitt alumna, started as CEO in January 2022 after spending 10 years in Planned Parenthood’s national office in Washington, D.C. Etheredge earned a master’s degree in health policy from George Washington University, and interned for Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a U.S. representative from Connecticut, during the passage of the Affordable Care Act. She said these experiences helped her understand the complex challenges facing abortion access — not just in Pennsylvania, but nationwide.

For example, a study from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists reported that, as of 2017, half of the counties in the country lack a single OB-GYN. These areas are home to more than 10 million people requiring gynecological services.

“Through my learnings and studies, what I was seeing was that sexual reproductive healthcare was incredibly siloed from the rest of the system,” Etheredge said. “It was very disturbing because, when half of the population needs to see an OB-GYN, why is that considered a specialty provider?” 

At PPWP, Alex McNeill, the clinic’s abortion service health center manager, said she feels fortunate to work with the “most compassionate, hard-working, brilliant, bravest people you’re ever likely to meet.” While abortion care is safe in Pennsylvania for now, McNeill said she worries about people throughout the country who “aren’t safe.”  

“When patients need to travel to Pennsylvania for care, then that is going to put more of a burden on the resources we have here, which then pushes patients into further gestations because of those things like travel and access and availability of appointments,” she said.

According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Guttmacher Institute, there were between 620,327 and 930,460 legal abortions in 2020 — the last year the organizations reported a total. However, dozens of clinics across the country stopped offering abortions after the reversal of Roe. 

“There are attacks against abortion every day, from courts, to politicians. There are protestors outside of our clinic, terrorist attacks at clinics,” McNeill said. “And every day across the world, abortion providers show up and fight for their patients and provide safe, non-judgemental, essential healthcare.”

Romita Das | Senior Staff Photographer

People like Raven Kirksey are grateful for staff who are always willing to lend a tissue if a patient needs to cry or joke with them if they need to laugh. Kirksey, a staff member at ARHC, had an abortion at the clinic before starting work there. Her experience with the clinic staff and simplicity of her procedure inspired her to apply for a position at the clinic when the opportunity presented itself about a year ago.  

“I can specifically remember walking out [after the procedure] and I was like ‘Wow, this was an incredible experience for me,’ feeling that love and support,” Kirksey said. “I thought they were the coolest people ever.” 

She added that destigmatizing abortions are necessary so everyone gets the health care they need — not just those whose lives are threatened by pregnancy.

“There has to be room for everybody if we want abortion to be completely normalized and destigmatize it,” Kirksey said. “Whatever their reasoning is, it doesn’t matter. If they don’t have a reason, that’s great too. It doesn’t matter. It never mattered to me.” 

Students fighting for abortion rights

Students are advocating for abortion access as well. Alexa Pierce, a junior double majoring in political science and law, criminal justice and society, is the president of the Planned Parenthood Generation Action club at Pitt. The club advocates and educates about reproductive issues, as well as supporting local clinics such as PPWP and ARHC.

“Since Roe was overturned in the summer, a lot of the students in the club wanted to get involved in direct action, so a lot of them wanted to donate their time and money or whatever they could, especially if they were in Pittsburgh,” Pierce said. “We helped a lot of students in PPGen get connected to the clinic.”

One of Pierce’s most prominent memories is when she and other PPGen and pro-choice club presidents from universities around the country spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris in October 2022 about abortion advocacy on campuses post-Roe. They made recommendations to the White House on how they can tailor their efforts to support students.   

“I think it's really important to realize that in Pennsylvania we might think that we're lucky, but we're not so far from becoming the next Texas,” Pierce said. “I'm hearing stories from students in Idaho, or in Texas, or other southern states where there's really restrictive abortion laws at the state level. The battle they’re up against is a lot. Some couldn't even start chapters, some were getting pushback from their own University.” 

Sara Dixon, the public relations manager at PPWP, is one staff member at the clinic who was first introduced to Planned Parenthood’s work as a young person. She started volunteering at PPWP’s Young Leadership Council in 2017, which she said opened her eyes to issues surrounding sexual and reproductive health care. Dixon said lots of people aren’t informed about how to practice safe sex — which can lead to unintended pregnancies and STIs.   

"Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania has three areas of expertise, our sexual and reproductive health care clinics, our sexual education department, which offers comprehensive sex education in schools and to the greater Western PA communities and our Public Affairs and Advocacy department, which is responsible for disseminating factual and stigma-free information to our supporters, legislators and the public at large," Dixon said. 

Legal advocacy 

With numerous federal and state laws in place to limit reproductive access, legal experts have found ways to support some of the most vulnerable groups in a post-Roe landscape. Some of these laws include Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act  — which establishes a 24-hour waiting period before the procedure, state-mandated counseling and restrictions on insurance — and the Hyde Amendment — which prohibits federal funds from covering abortions, including for people enrolled in Medicaid, Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. 

Tausha Bonner-Johnson is the Youth Organizer at New Voices for Reproductive Justice, an organization that works to improve the health and well-being of Black women, girls and gender-expansive people. She said Black women, Black birthing people and women of color have never truly had equitable access to abortions, especially due to the Hyde Amendment. 

“This [Dobbs decision] was an announcement, but it wasn’t something that turned our community completely upside down, as we were never turned right side up in the first place,” she said. 

Bonner-Johnson believes that young people are the future of the abortion rights movement, and that they’re “stepping up and trying to change this world.” 

“Young folks are doing exactly what we've been begging people to do,” she said. “They're listening to each other, they are supporting each other, they are standing beside each other, they are standing up for injustices when it doesn’t affect them.”

The Women’s Law Project, a nonprofit, public interest, legal organization, works to defend and advance the rights of women, girls and LGBTQ+ people in Pennsylvania and beyond. WLP attorneys provide free assistance to all of Pennsylvania’s abortion providers to help them navigate a host of legal issues, and offer youth access assistance as part of a specialty project.  

As a staff attorney at WLP, Chris Castro said she provides representation in a way that “centers and honors” younger clients’ ability to make their own decisions surrounding their reproductive health. Post-Roe, Castro said she’s noticed more barriers to abortion that are difficult for young people to overcome, such as long-distance travel and complicated legal systems. 

One of these complicated legal systems, Castro said, is judicial bypass — a process that allows teens to not tell their parents or guardians about their pregnancy by obtaining an order from a judge. Castro said there are other considerations attorneys must make as well depending on the client.

“When you hold multiple identities, and are experiencing multiple forms of oppression based on sex, gender, disability, immigration status, etc, a cookie-cutter approach will not solve everyone's needs,” Castro said. “We don't live single-issue lives.” 

Maggie Neely, another lawyer at WLP who works to advance pregnant people’s rights, said she believes achieving social justice is impossible unless people can make decisions for themselves about whether and how to have children — which is impossible without a community of people willing to support one another. 

“We can't do this work alone,” Neely said. “We have a really incredible community here in Western Pennsylvania that enables us to do this and to support people and help them get the care that they need.”