Pennsylvania dispatch: abortion rights activists and supporters say ‘bodies are on the ballot’ as midterms come down to the wire Dispatches
© WikiMedia (Larissa Puro)
Pennsylvania dispatch: abortion rights activists and supporters say ‘bodies are on the ballot’ as midterms come down to the wire

JURIST staffers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law are filing dispatches on various aspects of the November 2022 midterm elections in Pennsylvania. Here, Pitt Law 1L Morgan Hubbard reports on several conversations she’s had in recent days with Pennsylvania women very concerned about abortion access. 

In the lead-up to tomorrow’s midterm elections in Pennsylavnia, I spoke to three women with unique and informed perspectives on the issue of abortion access and reproductive justice. For them, these issues are imperative as they head to the polls and work in the final stretch to mobilize voters. Though their backgrounds and perspectives varied, one powerful through-line was clear: bodies are on the ballot.

Sydney Etheredge, a Board Member for Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, spoke to the broad scope of reproductive justice and its intersectional impact here in Western Pennsylvania. Having worked closely with reproductive healthcare clinics and the communities they serve, Etheredge has a passion for advancing policy that creates access to comprehensive healthcare. As she looks forward to this election and its potential effects on that access, told me she feels hopeful about candidates who share her passion:

The issue of reproductive justice is so intersectional, and all of these other issues ladder up. I want someone who will focus on support for climate change efforts, affordable housing, and job creation, especially for Black women and other marginalized groups. There are a lot of good candidates in Pennsylvania trying to do that work.

When I asked whether she was excited or anxious about the weight of this particular election, she reflected on voting in previous contests: “When I think of other big elections in my lifetime, like President Obama and Hillary Clinton, I think those were exciting to vote in because history was being made.” However, now she feels what is at stake more heavily than what history can be made: “This election does not feel like another November midterm. The issue on our ballot will make or break our democracy, and we need to ask ourselves who is willing to make those changes.”

LeeVetta Smith, Community Programs Director for New Voices for Reproductive Justice, has been working to educate voters across Pennsylvania and Ohio about the issue of abortion access. For her, the issue of abortion is often oversimplified in political conversations. She informs voters about the larger implications of governmental limitations on choice and access, and about who is affected most when those limitations are imposed: “Reproductive justice starts before a person becomes pregnant. It is infrastructure, it is racial, it is environmental. When people think that we are just fighting for abortion, they’re wrong.”

Advocates like Smith and Etheredge are facing a difficult task in a close election in a divided state, but they remain hopeful. For many Pennsylvania voters, especially women, the issue of abortion access is a top priority in this election. As Etheredge said, the stakes feel high. Some voters, even those who have conflicting opinions on the use of abortion treatment, are persuaded by the larger implications of decisions like Dobbs that overturn existing protections for privacy and bodily autonomy.

Another concern underpinning this issue is the impact of state-by-state decision-making around limitations to abortion care and the legislation regarding federal restrictions that may gain momentum depending on midterm election results across the US. For those like Etheredge who are working closely with the healthcare providers, it is easy to see how issues involving transportation, funding, access, and larger implications on staffing clinics within a climate of ever-changing law compound to create crises that feel much larger than just a single state alone. For many Pennsylvanians, there is a sense of urgency to vote for leaders who would work to prevent such a crisis.

One voter impacted by this sense of urgency is Abby Deter, a student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Deter, along with her passion for law and justice, is specifically focused on what those foundational rights look like in the healthcare field. For her, this election is monumental:

This election will determine if abortion remains legal in Pennsylvania, and therefore whether a woman can receive necessary healthcare. If abortion is criminalized, Pennsylvania will be telling women that they value individual’s religious beliefs over women’s lives and access to healthcare. Between sexual violence and the loss of bodily autonomy, the female body has become a war zone. I see an urgency in my fellow law students and allies to stand up for women’s rights.

The urgency felt by Deter is echoed by the voters Smith has spoken to in the last few weeks. Smith reflected on the hope she feels going into the election: “From the rooms I have been sitting in, it feels like a people issue. People in these small rooms are believing women and Black women. I would love to see that happen in larger rooms. […] I am hopeful that people find candidates that their values align with.” Though opposition on the issue of abortion is strong amongst more conservative voters, the scope of the issue of reproductive justice may reach more moderate or undecided single-issue voters.

Abortion access is certainly not the only issue implicitly or explicitly on the ballot tomorrow, but from these conversations, it is clear that abortion access is not an issue that stands alone. This message is powerful with voters. When the stakes feel so high, it is possible that the message will be reflected in the turnout at the polls.

I ended my conversation with Etheredge by asking what she might say to the people of Pennsylvania as this election nears. She responded this way:

While you may not know someone who has has an abortion or you may not have had one yourself, collectively we need to show that it is not okay when we remove these rights of bodily autonomy and healthcare access. It is a slippery slope. This is the election that will show us if we are on that slope or if our feet are on the ground. In such charged times, we need to have our feet on the ground.

I asked Smith the same question. Her response speaks profoundly to a sentiment I’ve heard expressed by others already: “Our bodies are on the ballot. This does not just mean abortion. This affects our ability to live in a healthy and sustainable environment. If you’re not voting for yourself, vote for the next generation. Vote for your neighbor.”