‘Real people making real decisions’: Abortion rights advocates make their case on Capitol Hill
Kelsey Leigh, 36, of Mt. Lebanon, outside Pittsburgh, went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday as a “patient storyteller,” with the goal of shoring up support among Pennsylvania’s members of Congress for abortion rights.
She met with U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., on the same day a new poll showed that people are overwhelmingly worried about the state of abortion access in post-Roe America.
“We’re reminding our elected officials that folks overwhelmingly support abortion access, particularly in Pennsylvania,” Leigh told the Capital-Star. “We need to keep fighting for expanding access and just using the word ‘abortion’ and talking about what actually is happening in the lives of constituents like me.”
Leigh said she had an abortion in 2016 at 22 weeks of pregnancy, after a severe fetal anomaly was found. A month later, Pennsylvania lawmakers tried to ban abortion at 20 weeks, and Leigh said that motivated her to become active in the abortion rights movement.
“I felt really strongly about getting the truth out there amidst the rhetoric,” she said. “I grew up in a supportive family, and it was still really hard. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for patients undergoing those decisions, while then seeing themselves be debated about and it was all false and wrong saying that we don’t value life. We don’t know that eyelids develop at 20 weeks. And that’s just not what it’s about. It’s about real people making real decisions at any given moment.”
Leigh was among the hundreds of reproductive rights advocates with Planned Parenthood who went to D.C. this week to lobby lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill.
“There’s value in people having the courage to share those stories,” Gabby Richards, Director of Federal Advocacy Communications for the Planned Parenthood Action fund, told the Capital-Star.
“It’s one thing to leave behind like a leaflet with a senator’s staffer or with the senator themselves. It’s another thing for that senator to hear that story directly and the next time that they’re challenged on their view of abortion, or protecting access to abortion, they can lean on it and say, ‘hey, you know what, I met with Kelsey from Pennsylvania, and she shared with me her story, and I know that there’s a lot more people like her,’” she said.
Leigh was among the advocates who met with Fetterman, who has been a staunch supporter of abortion rights, saying during his campaign that they were “sacred and non-negotiable,” and that he would work to enshrine access to safe and legal abortion into federal law.
During Fetterman’s debate with Republican opponent Mehmet Oz last October, Oz said he wanted “women, doctors, local political leaders,” to make decisions about abortions, further illustrating the divide between the two candidates on the issue and providing the Fetterman campaign with ammunition for political ads.
Leigh said she was heartened by the meeting she and her group had with Fetterman, who reiterated his support for abortion rights.
“That was really powerful to hear particularly in the wake of having [former U.S. Sen. Pat] Toomey represent us for so long, for our senator to say ‘I want to keep hearing from y’all, I will say the word ‘abortion’ and recognizing that this is what Pennsylvanians want.”
Fetterman said in a statement following the meeting that he was “grateful to those who shared their stories and for the opportunity to discuss the current state of abortion rights in Pennsylvania and our country. I promise to always fight for women’s reproductive freedom and will continue the important work here in D.C. to codify abortion rights into federal law.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade last June, Leigh said she had a visceral reaction to the news.
“I knew that the state of abortion in this country was not great before that decision, and I know how many folks are at risk,” she said.
Leigh worked at an independent abortion clinic in Pittsburgh for six months last year, and remembers when West Virginia’s GOP-dominated legislature passed a near-total statewide abortion ban in September.
The morning after it took effect, the phones started ringing at the clinic.
“We had calls from patients who had appointments scheduled that were canceled, who had already gone through all of the ridiculous hoops that exist in states like waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, you name it, they’ve done it,” she said. “And now they’ve been told they have to travel out of state and people were wondering, ‘Am I a felon? If I’m bleeding, can I go to the hospital?’”
According to a new Planned Parenthood Federation of America poll released Tuesday, 75% of Americans are worried that someone who has an abortion could be charged with a felony or go to jail.
And 80% of those polled said they were worried that a medical provider might be unsure about performing an abortion over concerns that they could be charged with a crime as well.
The poll, of 1,443 adults across the U.S., conducted between January 2 and 7, found 80% of Americans are worried that law enforcement could investigate people who have miscarriages or stillbirths if they suspect someone had an abortion. And 70%of those surveyed support establishing and maintaining the right to abortion in their state.
For her part, Leigh said she would consider Tuesday’s meetings in Washington successful if her elected officials commit to publicly using the word “abortion,” and ideally stop using the term pro-choice.
“It’s not always a choice for people, and that gets at the nuance and the privacy of where these decisions really are,” she said.
Leigh also wants to see Fetterman and other Pennsylvania politicians co-sponsor legislation to protect abortion access.
“I’m not naive, I know sometimes these bills are introduced and we know they’re not likely to pass,” Leigh said. “But that doesn’t mean that folks shouldn’t be putting them forward and showing ‘hey, this is important to my constituents, and it’s important to me here in D.C.’”
She expects to keep up the fight past Tuesday’s visit to the capital, Leigh added.
“This country was founded on the right to self-determination. I believe in that really strongly,” she said. “That message has been co-opted in rhetoric by anti-abortion folks. And that’s why I continue to speak out.”