Two years after the fall of Roe, these Pennsylvanians are fighting for reproductive rights - TAI News
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House Democratic lawmakers, Planned Parenthood members and other abortion rights advocates gathered at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg on June 24, 2024 to mark the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Anna Gustafson)

Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion nationwide, Pennsylvanians are fighting to ensure that abortion remains legal and accessible in a state where Republican lawmakers have attempted to significantly restrict access to reproductive care.

From an ex-Republican voter and former evangelical Christian to faith leaders and grassroots organizers, a diverse group of residents wants Pennsylvania to be a reproductive justice leader in a country where abortion is under attack at both the state and the federal levels.

A chaotic patchwork of state laws now regulates abortion across the country in the wake of the court’s June 2022 ruling. In Pennsylvania, abortion is legal through the 23rd week of pregnancy. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and Democratic lawmakers have vowed to protect that right and to expand access to reproductive care. Republican lawmakers have tried to strip away abortion rights in the commonwealth, including by pushing for a state constitutional amendment that would have declared there is no constitutional right to abortion.

Aimee Saunders

Aimee Saunders, a former evangelical Republican, is working with Red, Wine and Blue to educate women on their reproductive rights.
Aimee Saunders, a former evangelical Republican, is working with Red, Wine and Blue to educate women on their reproductive rights. (Aimee Saunders)

Growing up as an evangelical Christian in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1990s, Aimee Saunders lived a life steeped in purity culture.

She took a pledge not to have sex before marriage, learned to be fearful of feminism, and attended a “True Love Waits” rally on the National Mall in 1994. At her evangelical schools and in the evangelical books, media and sermons she consumed, she was taught that anyone who challenged this messaging was a dangerous liar.

When she became old enough to vote, there was no question which political party she’d join.

“It never occurred to me to be anything other than a Republican voter, because that’s what you were in that environment,” said Saunders, who now lives in Lehigh County. “And it never occurred to me to ask questions about reproductive health because we were evangelical Christians and we were against abortion because abortion is murder.”

Fast forward to now, and Saunders describes herself as a “lefty left” who’s working as an organizer for Red, Wine and Blue, a grassroots group that aims to engage suburban women in politics. In that role, she works to educate women in Lehigh, Monroe and Northampton counties about reproductive rights, among other issues.

“I have a lot of compassion for the person I was and the women who are like that, but it’s my job to fight against that, because my daughter deserves better than what I had,” Saunders said.

Saunders is able to connect with other women in the counties she serves by drawing on her own experiences, including having a dilation and evacuation — an abortion procedure that 33 states have now banned in the second trimester — when she became pregnant for the first time and then miscarried. She understands the women who may be on the fence about abortion, or opposed to it altogether. It wasn’t that long ago that she thought the same way.

She remembers, for example, how much she loved Barack Obama when he was running for office, but she never once considered voting for him because he was pro-choice.

Then, in 2016, Donald Trump’s candidacy prompted her to vote for an entirely Democratic slate of candidates. She’d further challenged her beliefs while spending time with Black Christians who were working with white evangelicals to address a history of racism in evangelicalism.

“That was kind of my entryway, my gateway of being like, There’s a lot of issues here that I wasn’t aware of,” Saunders said.

It was around that time that her daughter said something that forever stuck with her.

“I remember my daughter being really disengaged with the work that I was doing, and me getting my feelings hurt and being like, ‘What is wrong with you? Are you not supportive of what I’m doing?’ And she just laughed at me, and she said, ‘You just like to pick and choose who you care about.’”

Her daughter’s statement was largely a reference to LGBTQ+ individuals, and it was that sentiment that she credits for her committing to an ideological transformation.

That kind of change is not easy, and it can be deeply lonely as you lose most of your support system, Saunders explained. But, she said, it’s worth it.

“It is possible for people to change their mind,” she said.

Caroline Jones

Caroline Jones is working to break down the stigma surrounding abortion.
Caroline Jones is working to break down the stigma surrounding abortion. (Anna Gustafson)

When Caroline Jones discovered she was pregnant at the age of 24 in 2021, she knew she didn’t want to become a parent. What the Philadelphia native didn’t know was just how much stigma she’d experience going through the abortion process.

Now she’s working to break that stigma down. Anyone who wants an abortion, she emphasized, should be able to access that care and feel supported doing so.

Following her abortion, Jones began volunteering as a patient escort at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia. There, she protects patients from aggressive anti-abortion protesters as they make their way into the building. Plus, she advocates for reproductive justice through her work at Women’s Way, a gender justice nonprofit based in Philadelphia.

Much of her focus in breaking down barriers to accessing abortion revolves around sharing her own story.

On June 24, Jones traveled to the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, where she joined Democratic lawmakers, Planned Parenthood advocates and other abortion activists at an event marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Jones attended the event as what’s called a “Planned Parenthood storyteller.”

Throughout the abortion process, Jones was reminded of a long list of barriers to receiving reproductive health care, including the fact that insurance typically won’t cover the costly procedure and the time people need to take off from work for it.

The day of her surgery, her mother, whom Jones calls her rock, brought her to the appointment. Immediately, they encountered a protester screaming at the patients entering the clinic.

“She turned around to that man and she told him, ‘You don’t give a fuck about Black babies. Stop yelling at these women,’” Jones said.

The whole abortion process made Jones realize how much more government funding and support needs to be provided to Black-led organizations working on reproductive justice. She noted that as soon as she went into the clinic where she received her abortion, she immediately noticed the demographics.

“It was a room just filled with Black and brown women,” she said.”I know the demographics of Philadelphia, and I know that Philadelphia racially is about even when it comes to Black folks, brown folks, in comparison to white folks. So it was very interesting to me to not see a single white or Asian woman actually in that room.”

For Jones, it’s crucial to address a long history of reproductive injustices and reproductive violence committed against Black women, and the ongoing racism in reproductive health care.

“Any of these organizations that are supporting the reproductive justice, the reproductive education and the reproductive access of specifically Black women in Philadelphia need to be expanded on and need to be funded,” Jones said.

Jim Cavenaugh

Jim Cavenaugh, a chaplain at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, has been fighting for reproductive rights for decades.
Jim Cavenaugh, a chaplain at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, has been fighting for reproductive rights for decades. (Anna Gustafson)

Jim Cavenaugh, a chaplain at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, has been fighting for reproductive rights for decades.

In the 1990s, he worked as a patient escort at an abortion clinic that has since shuttered.

“We walked with patients at the clinic from the parking to the front door while demonstrators who were uncaring shouted at them and wanted to shame them into not going in,” Cavenaugh told the Pennsylvania Independent during the June 24 event in Harrisburg. “And that was tragic. And it should have been against the law, but it was legal.”

These days, Cavenaugh has been advocating for reproductive rights as a member of the Pennsylvania Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice.

“There are progressive people of faith all over Pennsylvania, and all over the country, for that matter, who have not been loud and outgoing about their support for women’s health care and reproductive justice. And we’re working on changing that and being much more public about it.”

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The Pennsylvania Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.