Abortion in Pa.

Philadelphia has become a ‘sanctuary city’ for abortion access, but it might not stay that way

If Pennsylvania bans abortion, it would be tough for local government to buck the mandate.

Planned Parenthood at 12th and Locust streets in Center City Philadelphia

Planned Parenthood at 12th and Locust streets in Center City Philadelphia

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Countless elected officials from Philadelphia spoke out after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, and several organized or attended protests in defense of continued abortion access. Reacting to the ruling in late June, state Sen. Nikil Saval encapsulated the feelings of his colleagues and many constituents:

He suggested Philly should become an “abortion sanctuary city.”

The term is borrowed from the immigration space, and generally refers to jurisdictions that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. A sanctuary city for abortion, in theory, would refuse to prosecute people for abortion and continue to help people get reproductive health care.

In a way, that’s already the case for Philadelphia.


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Pennsylvanians in need of abortion services have long been heading to Philly, said Julie Zaebst, a senior policy advocate for ACLU Pennsylvania. Southeastern Pa. is home to most of the state’s abortion facilities. In 2020, 41% of all abortions in the state took place in Philadelphia, state data shows.

The Dobbs vs. Jackson decision has caused a new influx of abortion patients, Zaebst said. Some are overflowing from western Pennsylvania, where just a few providers have been overwhelmed by people coming from Ohio, where the procedure is now banned after six weeks. Others may have come to Philly from further-away states because it was the most affordable option, thanks to a close-by airport with many direct flights.

Unlike in the immigration space, there’s not yet any superseding law against abortion in Philadelphia — it’s legal up to 24 weeks — although that could change in the near future if voters elect an anti-abortion governor in November.

Still, local officials are already making extra efforts to support reproductive rights, even of non-Pennsylvanians.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner called on his fellow Pennsylvania DAs to protect reproductive rights, and Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order saying Pa. will not cooperate with any attempts by other states to arrest people for getting abortions, providing abortions or helping others get abortions.

Those kinds of pledges become trickier, however, if abortion law in Pennsyvlania becomes more restrictive. Anti-abortion lawmakers are trying to make that happen, and recently took a big step toward limiting abortion rights in Pennsylvania’s constitution.

State lawmakers from Philadelphia, and many others throughout the state, oppose this change. Some of them were present at a legislative committee hearing Tuesday meant to educate Pennsylvanians about the implications of limiting abortion access in the state. Rep. Mary Isaacson, of Philadelphia’s River Wards, called it part of an “education series.”

“We in Pennsylvania certainly have to make sure that we have an informed public with regard to what rights women have under the law,” Isaacson said. “We need to make sure that misinformation is not being spread around.”

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has also been getting the word out about the current state of local abortion law, and how Philadelphians can take action to protect reproductive rights.

City lawmakers have been meeting for years to develop strategies for protecting and improving abortion access, City Councilmember Helen Gym said. She plans to introduce measures that would help in those efforts when Council reconvenes in the fall. “Municipalities can do a lot in this time,” she said.

Money for care and incidentals

Providing funds is one of the tops ways city governments can support abortion seekers and providers, advocates told Billy Penn. The exact details of how they deliver that money depends on whether the state they’re in has restrictive abortion laws in place.

“The most straightforward way is to allocate municipal funding directly to a local abortion fund or to abortion providers,” said Jenny Dodson Mistry, deputy director of partnerships at the National Institute for Reproductive Health.

St. Louis, for example, recently passed a bill that allocated some of the city’s federal coronavirus relief money toward helping people pay for travel and childcare costs related to an out-of-state abortion. Missouri’s legislature passed an abortion ban that went into effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Austin passed similar legislation a few years ago, but the fate of those funds is uncertain after the June SCOTUS decision, because of Texas’ abortion ban. Other cities, in states where abortion is legal, have funds to help patients pay for the procedure as well.

Philadelphia doesn’t currently have an abortion fund that comes out of the city budget, Gym said, but Council has in the past considered expanding city funding of health care.

“It’s one thing for abortion to be legal and another thing for it to be accessible and affordable,” Gym said.

Support to travel across the bridge?

It becomes more difficult for Philadelphia to be a sanctuary if Pennsylvania makes abortion law more restrictive.

“A city that is located in the state of Pennsylvania is going to be subject to Pennsylvania state law, no matter what it passes locally,” Sue Frietsche, a staff attorney with the Women’s Law Project, told Billy Penn. “Philadelphia could pass really progressive legislation about abortion access and everybody there would still be subject to the limitations of the Abortion Control Act.”

Mistry, of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said her organization is currently working on developing best practices for cities that want to decriminalize abortion, in contradiction of their state’s law. (Cincinnati’s mayor has said he’s looking into this.) For cities that go this route, it’s important to know how other law enforcement agencies might respond, she noted.

For example, “A hostile attorney general could still take action” if one were elected, Mistry said. “Each city should kind of map out the protections and risks that they face and ensure the people who know understand.”

Something that could be used by local officials is Philadelphia’s proximity to New Jersey, where the state government has strong protections for abortion rights, Zaebst noted. A number of Philadelphians already go across the bridge for abortions because N.J. has fewer restrictions than Pa. which requires parental consent and has a 24-hour waiting period.

If anti-abortion legislators in Pennsylvania are successful in their efforts to increase those restrictions, the City of Philadelphia could provide funding for people to get care in New Jersey, Zaebst suggested.

Elsewhere in the country, where bans are already in place, people and organizations are still taking action to help abortion seekers get the services they need, advocates said. It’s too early to tell whether that will expose them to legal trouble.

“Lawyers all across the country right now who do this work are trying to understand what arguments they can make to protect pregnant people, abotion seekers and abortion providers as best as possible,” Zaebst said. “I’m sure there are already folks who are stepping up quietly and helping folks access care in ways that violate unjust laws in their state.”