Elections: Reproductive Rights Activists Looked to the Election and Beyond for the Future of Abortion in Pennsylvania 

The issue of abortion proved to be an important issue for voters this election cycle. For a variety of reasons, Americans have felt strongly about the topic. 

Ellyn Rosenfeld, 71, votes in every election. This year, she says reproductive rights were one of the major influences over her vote.  

“This Roe v Wade is very upsetting,” Rosenfeld said. “And as a college student, I had an abortion when they were illegal. So it’s very personal to me, the fear of that. And I don’t want any other young girl to go through that.” 

This year, the issue has been on the forefront of the minds of Americans following the Supreme Court’s decision on the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in which a clinic challenged a Mississippi law that would prohibit most abortions after 15 weeks. 

In May, a leak of the Court’s potential ruling on the Dobbs case showed the Court was leaning in favor of overturning Roe v Wade, the case that established the precedent that the right to privacy outlined in the Fourteenth Amendment extended to abortion. The decision was made official in June with a 5-4 ruling stating there is no constitutional right to abortion. 

A majority of Americans support the legality of abortion and the Supreme Court’s leak and subsequent ruling sparked outrage among many. Protests against the decision occurred nationwide in the form of marches, rallies, and other demonstrations.  

The Dobbs decision leaves abortion laws up to each state. In Pennsylvania, the current law is that abortion is legal until 24 weeks. Gov. Tom Wolf promised to keep abortion legal in Pennsylvania. 

“Abortion access in Pennsylvania will remain legal and safe as long as I am governor,” Wolf said in a Tweet in May. 

While that may or may not have provided a measure of comfort for some, midterm elections loomed large within the Commonwealth. In Pennsylvania, governors cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. With Wolf’s second term expiring in 2023, the legality of abortion in the state will be left up to the next governor, setting up a highly-charged election cycle. 

The gubernatorial race introduced two candidates with extremely different stances on abortion. Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro promised he would keep abortion legal in the state if elected. Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate, supported a bill that would make abortion illegal once a heartbeat was detected, with no exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother.

Protesters gather at Shapiro’s Rally to Defend Choice. (Sarah Collins/PN) 

Shapiro campaigned heavily on the issue of abortion, and it became a major part of his platform. In October, Shapiro held the Rally to Defend Choice at Philadelphia’s City Hall and urged voters to turn out to the polls to support the legality of abortion in Pennsylvania.  

“If you have a vote, you have a voice,” Shapiro said. “If you can realize the power of your voice over these next 17 days, then I will spend the next four years as your governor defending your fundamental freedoms, including the right to choose here in Pennsylvania.” 

Not only did political candidates focus on the issue of abortion for the election. Reproductive rights activists were also focused on the topic ahead of the midterms.  

AccessMatters is a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia that helps provide sexual and reproductive health care to those who need it. Audrey Ross, senior manager of communications and policy at AccessMatters, said the Supreme Court’s decision did not come as a surprise. 

“We had been expecting something for quite some time,” Ross said. “So, the leak as well as the decision itself did not come as a surprise to us, per say. It really helped us to emphasize to the public that these restrictions are coming and people need to get involved.” 

Prior to the Dobbs decision, the organization had been focusing its efforts on activism related to protecting and expanding access to the Title X Family Planning Program. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, AccessMatters shifted its attention to also protect the legality of abortion in Pennsylvania. 

“It was something that we took a moment to really think about which area we could have the most impact and certainly continued the advocacy work that we had been doing,” Ross said. “But we knew that in order to really speak and fulfill our mission and our vision to protect and expand and enhance access to sexual reproductive health care and information for all people that we really needed to be there advocating for abortion access as well.” 

The organization has phone and text-based hotlines to support individuals seeking out these services. It connects callers with family planning providers, providers of breast and cervical cancer screening and treatment, and also perinatal and postpartum health care providers. The hotline also connects callers with abortion care based on their requests. Ross said that following the overturn of Roe v Wade, the hotline has experienced an increase in calls. 

“Since June, our AccessMatters information hotline has experienced an increase in calls related to tubal ligations and vasectomies,” Ross said. “I think our providers and our hotline have also both seen an increase in calls around people seeking reproductive health services and that’s a trend we expect to continue.” 

The election was a large focus for AccessMatters’ advocacy this year. The organization was working to let people know about what it characterizes as the possibility of abortion being on voters’ ballots in 2023 and that people’s vote not only effects maintaining the legality of abortion now, but also who will be deciding if the issue is put on the ballot next year.  

“It’s been a bit of a balancing act letting people know about the importance of voting in this election, getting registered, and then also explaining how this election impacts certainly the people that would be weighing in on such a bill,” Ross said. “It’s important that people register to vote and to exercise your vote. It’s really one of the ways that we can make our voices heard.” 

Attempts to contact the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, and Democrats for Life of Pennsylvania for comment were not met.  

Candidate signs lined the sidewalk leading up to Arch St. Presbyterian Church polling location. (Sarah Collins/PN) 

Some people argue that just voting is not enough and needs to be paired with other actions to make change. Mark Tinkleman is a lead organizer for the Philadelphia chapter of Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights. Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights was founded in January of this year to call for demonstrations in support of abortion rights in the United States. Tinkleman believes voting is important, but protest is also a necessary component to keep abortion legal. 

“What I am going to say that really matters is that there are real consequences out here,” Tinkleman said. “It matters the balance of power in the senate and stuff like that. What needs to happen, whatever happens in November, is people need to get in the streets and make an unignorable ruckus.” 

 Tinkleman said that historically, real change has not been made by playing a political long game, and those at risk do not have the time to wait for change to be enacted. 

“The rights that these fascists are trying to strip away, including abortion rights, weren’t won by slowly building up legislative power,” Tinkleman said. “They were won by struggles of the ‘60s, which in large part, were outside of and against the system. And that’s what we have to do now.” 

In countries with the absence of safe abortion access, abortion is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality. Unsafe abortion poses a variety of health risks. 

“Women and trans people and nonbinary people are going to die. Like this isn’t something that’s just some theoretical thing,” Tinkleman said. “People are actually going to die, with large numbers the longer that this goes on.” 

Even before the results of the election, Rise Up planned for two days of demonstrations to demand abortion access across the country. 

“On Nov. 25, Black Friday, we are calling for it to become Green Friday in the spirit of Green Wave from Latin America, which has won abortion rights in numerous countries there,” Tinkleman said. “And Dec. 1 we’re calling for actions across the country to make demands for legal abortion nationwide.” 

The work of activists to maintain the legality of abortion in Pennsylvania has seemingly paid off. Shapiro was victorious in his bid for governor, winning with 56.46% of the vote statewide, and 85.63% in Philadelphia County.  

Voters head into the polls at Arch St. Presbyterian Church. (Sarah Collins/PN) 

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