Philadelphia councilmembers are joining a wave of local officials who’ve been introducing laws to protect abortion access as federal and state lawmakers make moves to restrict it.
With no more Roe v. Wade standing in his way, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham just introduced a bill in Congress that would ban abortion nationwide after 15 gestational weeks. On the heels of this and other efforts, leaders of cities that support reproductive rights have been taking the matter into their own hands.
In Philadelphia, that effort resulted in a new package of proposed legislation, introduced Wednesday.
Three members of City Council — Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier — have come up with a trio of bills, as well as a call to action on the rest of the city’s government, meant to protect and expand abortion access in the city.
The package, named the Reproductive Freedom Platform, “was shaped by the people serving on the frontlines of this crisis — reproductive justice organizations and medical providers,” Gym said Wednesday.
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Pennsylvania politicians continue to make efforts to limit reproductive rights across the commonwealth. Harrisburg lawmakers are working to pass an amendment that would remove abortion rights from the state constitution, and the Republican nominee for Pa. governor, Doug Mastriano, has promised to sign an abortion ban into law if he is elected.
“After watching state lawmakers convene in the middle of the night to devise a scheme to strip our reproductive rights out of the Pennsylvania state constitution,” said Amal Bass, interim co-director of Women’s Law Project. “We are grateful to stand in the light of day with courageous leaders of Philadelphia City Council.”
The proposed laws look a bit different from the measures taken by abortion access supporters in other cities, including nearby Pittsburgh.
Sending a clear message: ‘Hands off’ our bodies
The package includes three pieces of legislation, and a resolution calling on the city to take further steps to protect abortion access.
One bill, being introduced by Councilmember Gym, would bar anyone from voluntarily sharing information that would be used in a criminal case or civil lawsuit meant to penalize a person for receiving or providing reproductive health care that is legal in Pennsylvania. It’s essentially a privacy law that would require a court order to compel that information.
Another piece of legislation is meant to protect patients and abortion providers from so-called “vigilante” lawsuits — the kinds that have been made possible in Texas, for example, through a state law that allows citizens to sue anyone who helps a person obtain an abortion after six gestational weeks. This bill, being introduced by Councilmember Gauthier, creates a right of action in Philadelphia for patients and providers to countersue against this kind of vigilante litigation.
“This legislation sends a clear message to anti-life heretics trying to control our bodies: hands off,” Gauthier said.
This is similar to a New York law, signed in June, which allows patients who are prosecuted or sued for seeking an abortion in the state to in turn bring their own suit in a New York court.
A third bill would update antidiscrimination laws in Philadelphia to account for reproductive health decisions, protecting workers from discrimination and retaliation related to those decisions and requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees reproductive health needs. Councilmember Brooks is introducing that bill. At Wednesday’s announcement, she said knows well the importance of reproductive freedom, “as a mother, a grandmother, and someone who has had an abortion.”
Additionally, the resolution announced Wednesday calls for a number of actions by Philadelphia government:
- Restrict the use of city resources to help out-of-state entities investigate, sue or prosecute abortion seekers or providers
- Increase awareness of abortion and reproductive health options by supporting a public health information campaign
- Support increased funding to assist people with costs of abortion and reproductive health care
- Help providers increase safety and privacy protections at abortion clinics
- Create a task force to continue seesking ways to protect and expand abortion access in Philadelphia
How U.S. cities are resisting statewide abortion bans
Philly’s new resolution looks similar to some of the measures put in place by concerned leaders of cities within states that have restricted abortion.
In Arizona, Tuscon passed a measure earlier this year ordering local police not to arrest people for violating state anti-abortion laws, and Phoenix’s mayor said she is working with city attorneys to find “effective ways to protect our residents and women’s health care,” according to news reports.
In Ohio, Cleveland and Columbus have deprioritized enforcement of laws criminalizing abortion, and Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval’s administration is looking into decriminalizing abortion.
Durham, North Carolina, passed a resolution in March declaring the city a “sexual and reproducitve health care safe zone” and Raleigh was looking into similar measures, Vox reported in June.
All of these cities exist in states with more restrictive abortion laws than Pennsylvania, where the procedure is legal up to 24 gestational weeks.
What cities have done in other states where abortion is legal
City legislators elsewhere have taken some similar measures in recent months in the interest of continued abortion access for their own constituents and people from other states where abortion is restricted or banned. Philadelphia lawmakers have been carefully watching those efforts. Here are some examples:
On the other side of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh’s City Council approved abortion rights legislation in July, just a few days after the Dobbs decision overturned Roe. Their three bills ensured:
- Pennsylvania abortion providers will be protected from out-of-state investigations (this is often called a shield law).
- If abortion law becomes more restrictive in Pennsylvania, those criminal charges will be deprioritized in Pittsburgh.
- Pregnancy crisis centers are barred from false advertising and other deceptive practices. For instance, medical providers advertised must be present, and all options must be presented to people seeking pregnancy-related services. (These centers, often situated near abortion providers, offer support for low-income pregnant people, with the aim of persuading them not to get an abortion.)
The largest city in Washington state — where abortion is legal and recent changes to state law aimed to expand access — has also passed several abortion rights laws, including the following changes:
- It is now a misdemeanor to interfere with someone seeking an abortion or gender-affirming care. This includes physical obstruction, trespassing, harassing phone calls and threats of violence against patients or care providers.
- The Seattle Office for Civil Rights can investigate alleged discrimination based on pregnancy outcomes
- Seattle’s City Council has also passed legislation prohibiting crisis pregnancy centers from making deceptive statements “about the pregnancy-related services they offer, including statement of omission.”
In New York state, Ithaca’s Common Council declared the town a sanctuary for abortions and reproductive health care in July, adopting many of the same protections that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law on the state level. That package included the following measures:
- Established a cause of action for unlawful interference with the protected right to abortion
- Forbids New York courts and law enforcement agencies from cooperating with out-of-state prosecutions related to abortion
- Protects abortion service providers from prosecution, misconduct charges and adverse action by insurance companies
- Allows abortion providers and patients to participate in the state’s address confidentiality program
Ithaca added a measure that said Ithaca city employees cannot participate in out-of-state investigations of any person traveling to Ithaca for an abortion, The Ithaca Voice reported. On the state level, this only applies to law enforcement.
Some other states, like New York, have been able to codify or expand abortion protections by law. Recent examples include New Jersey, Connecticut and California.
Why no ‘shield’ law for Philly?
The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter gives all executive powers — including policing policy decisions — to the mayor. So City Council cannot create a law to direct how abortion seekers and providers are treated by the city’s law enforcement officials.
This issue came up not long ago, in 2020, when Council passed a bill that would have required the police department to have a written policy prohibiting use of “less lethal force,” like tear gas and rubber bullets, on protesters. Mayor Jim Kenney, in a response to that legislation, wrote that the Philadelphia Law Department highlighted a separation of powers issue, but offered that the police department would update its policies to align more closely with Council’s bill.
Kenney, for his part, has made clear that he supports reproductive rights. He allocated $500k of city money to the Abortion Liberation Fund of PA, and his administration has put together a collection of online resources for protecting access to abortion.
In Pennsylvania as a whole, 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. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner stood with Gym, Brooks and Gauthier on Wednesday as they announced the new bills, praising their legislative efforts.
“This prosecutor’s office, as long as I’m around, is going to protect women, is going to protect girls,” Krasner said Wednesday.
So it appears that even before the newest bills go to a vote, Philadelphia has a “shield” in place for now.