#childsafety | Pittsburgh anti-abortion groups plan to expand and take extra precautions after Supreme Court ruling


This story is part of a series exploring how ahead of the Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s health. Other stories examine how abortion providers are preparing for the ruling and how legal uncertainties could affect abortion access.

Greg Engelmeyer showed up outside the Planned Parenthood location in Downtown Pittsburgh Thursday at 7:30 a.m. He has been coming for more than three years to try to convince women who were getting an abortion to reconsider. And he showed up 30 minutes before it opened to convince any staff entering to reconsider their jobs.

During an abortion protest soon after a draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade came out in May, a protester screamed in his face. Engelmeyer, who organizes volunteers for Pittsburgh Sidewalk Advocates for Life, said he has been screamed at, stared down and cursed at in the past but that the Supreme Court’s imminent decision about the status of Roe v. Wade had increased his worries.

“The climate has changed dramatically,” he said.

The Supreme Court will rule soon on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which many expect will overturn Roe v. Wade and give states the power to protect, regulate or ban abortion. Groups opposing abortion rights have been working toward this outcome for decades, and in Pittsburgh, they are preparing for a surge of activity after the decision.

Engelmeyer has been worried: A few weeks ago, he approached his group about taking a break from their work outside the clinic because many of his volunteers are small, old women and he was worried about their safety.

Oliver Morrison

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90.5 WESA

Greg Engelmeyer passes out anti-abortion informational brochures to anyone who will take one at the Downtown location of Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh.

But he said his members decided they didn’t want to stop.

He said two of his volunteers filed police reports after they were pushed to the ground during their shifts on Tuesday. After the incident, Engelmeyer talked with similar groups in other cities to get advice about how to be safe. He also set up a meeting with the local police.

As part of the effort to protect themselves, the group started putting up a sign on the sidewalk that read, “Video & audio recording is in progress.” Engelmeyer thinks they may have to cut back on shifts, so that there can be at least three volunteers at each shift rather than just two.

Engelmeyer approached a young woman who he said looked like she was a teenager trying to enter the facility. “Before you go in there, there might be help,” he said.

“Please leave us alone,” said an older woman who was escorting the young woman in.

Even when they say they don’t want to be bothered, Engelmeyer said, he usually tries a couple more times to see if they’ll soften.

“You sure you want to do this?” Engelmeyer asked. “You’re changing her life.”

Can anyone call themselves pro-choice? 

The abortion debate has gotten so intense that even the labels groups use are in question.

Abortion-rights groups often argue that while they support abortion rights, they are the “pro-life” because they support social services for women and children.

And now, groups opposing abortion rights have been laying claim to the “pro-choice” title. For example, the Women’s Choice Network, which describes itself as providing “life-affirming pregnancy services,” often comes up as one of the first results when Googling phrases such as “pro-choice Pittsburgh” or “looking for abortion in Pittsburgh.”

Amy Scheuring, the executive director for nearly two decades, said she thinks the group’s name is appropriate because, in her experience, the women who come wanting to have an abortion do so because they don’t think there is an alternative. They try to help women think about how they might raise the child or give their child up for adoption. They most frequently provide ultrasounds and testing for sexually transmitted infections. They also do follow-up educational classes.

But critics say groups like hers deceptively lure in women looking for abortions and sometimes providing them with inaccurate information. Scheuring said her doctors are licensed, and she dismissed a 2018 article in the Post-Gazette that implied her group gave out a pamphlet with false information.

The three Women’s Choice centers in the Pittsburgh area collectively report seeing more than 1,000 new patients per year, only about a third of whom turn out to be pregnant. Or, as Scheuring put it, they see “about a baby a day.”

About 80% of those who are pregnant go on to give birth, she said, and about 1% put their babies up for adoption. Some studies have questioned how many of the women at these types of facilities were really considering abortion, but Scheuring’s organization refers to these pregnant women as “abortion vulnerable.”

Her network has in the past seen patients from West Virginia, Ohio and as far away as Maryland. And she said, if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, it’s possible the group will increase its advertising in places like West Virginia, which could resurrect a pre-Roe ban on abortion.

I’m not sure how aggressive we’re going to be able to be in those markets, but it is possible,” she said. “We’d want to reach Morgantown and Wheeling and Weirton and, you know, any neighboring cities.”

More money

The group raised more than $1 million in 2022, nearly double what it raised in 2016. And Scheuring said the majority of that additional money has gone to advertising. She said it’s hard for her advertising budget to keep pace with pharmaceutical companies that advertise abortion pills. But the fundraising has been less of a challenge.

“It’s been fairly easy,” she said. “In other words, people are very anxious to give.

Women’s Choice Network doesn’t apply for Real Alternatives, a state program that funds similar programs like hers. The group does take government reimbursements for STI testing, she said. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has contributed $165,000, according to the nonprofit’s most recent tax filing in 2020.

Two of the organization’s donors, according to its tax filing, are two of the city’s biggest foundations: The Pittsburgh Foundation and PNC Foundation, which gave $95,000 and $84,000, respectively. A spokesperson for PNC said that the amount included their total donations over five years and that in 2020 it donated $15,000 to support making the group’s educational materials for schools available online during the pandemic. The Pittsburgh Foundation did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Chris Humphrey, the executive director of Vision for Life, buys advertising directing to centers like The Women’s Choice Network. The group raised about $80,000 in 2019, and Humphrey said he gives $2,000 per month to Scheuring’s organization.

He believes his group’s advertising has already saved lives because the ratio of abortions to births in Allegheny County has been decreasing, and he doesn’t think any other explanations, such as restricting abortion access, have been shown to work. But he does think restricting access after the Supreme Court decision will help in some places. “There will be many, many lives saved,” he said. “I mean, there are still abortions being performed in Middle America.”

Scheuring expects her budget to increase even more if the Supreme Court overturns Roe. Not immediately, she said, but a year or two later, once Pennsylvania voters or the state legislature have passed additional abortion restrictions. This will mean that there are more women looking for help with their pregnancies, she said, including some of the classes her organization gives to new parents.

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Oliver Morrison

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90.5 WESA News

On Wednesday Pittsburgh Sidewalk Advocates for Life started bringing a sign they hope will protect them during volunteer shifts to counsel women against having abortions.

More than half of abortions were medication abortions in 2020, according to a study by Guttmacher Institute, and some experts predict that it could be even more common after the upcoming Supreme Court decision.

Scheuring has already increased the group’s efforts to provide a controversial approach to stop medication abortions. Proponents claim the hormone progesterone can halt a medication-based abortion after the patient has taken the first pill in a two-step regimen.

Abortion pill reversals are not approved by the Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which calls them “unproven” and their use “unethical.”

But Scheuring said she has seen these pills work with a handful of patients each year.

The Women’s Choice Network is a non-political nonprofit, but it can encourage its supporters to vote, she said. A lot of longitudinal studies show that most Americans support some access to abortion but not unlimited access. Scheuring thinks voters shouldn’t dwell on the extreme cases because she believes legislatures will make exceptions for rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger. She didn’t say whether she would be supporting Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for Governor this year, who doesn’t make exceptions for rape or incest.

She is looking forward to being able to make her case if power is returned to the states. “When we talk about women’s rights, I mean, what about their rights in the womb? What about those people?” she said. “So I think we’re all going to have a chance to examine things a little bit more closely.”

Exceptions

Jim Ludwig has been working to stop abortions for nearly 50 years. And now, he thinks, his time may have come.

When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1972, Ludwig says he was a college student interested in only sports, leisure and women. He’d never thought about abortion before, he said. But after the case, he decided he needed to. It came down to whether a fetus was a life or not, he said, and to him, it obviously was.

After college, a friend invited him to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., and he was asked to help explain the issues to other Pittsburgh protesters on the bus ride over. And pretty soon, he said, Life PAC of Southwestern Pennsylvania asked him to be on its board and to offer his views on political candidates.

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Oliver Morrison

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90.5 WESA

A volunteer for Pittsburgh Sidewalk Advocates for Life holds a prayer necklace outside the Planned Parenthood’s downtown Pittsburgh office.

At the time, the organization made endorsements and prioritized incumbents with anti-abortion voting records. But Ludwig said he opposed the plan to focus on incumbents and eventually won. “The phrase I used to like to say, ‘If Jesus Christ was running as a challenger to a pro-life incumbent, we couldn’t endorse him,’” he said.

So for years, the PAC has put out a list with all of the pro-life political candidates that are running in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It prints around 100,000 fliers each election and distributes them in places like churches. Every church is different, he said, but at North Park Evangelical Presbyterian Church, where he attends, Ludwig stands up, and the pastor tells parishioners to find Jim if they want information about pro-life candidates.

His work will become more important than ever, he said, if the Supreme Court takes away the right to an abortion. His PAC made one change this year: It added a mark next to any “pro-life” candidate that supported abortions in the case of rape or incest. The reason, he said, is that for many Republican primary races, there were so many candidates he knew he would get calls asking, “You put down nine people for Governor, and they are all pro-life. Who’s the most pro-life?”

Ludwig thinks abortion is wrong even in the cases of rape or incest and pointed to the story of Kathy Barnette, the failed candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, who said she was the product of a rape.

He probably won’t be doing much more than he already does after the Supreme Court decision, he said, in part because he’s old and has for the last decade or two begun to slow down. But he’s also retired and has more time, so he’ll still keep at it:

“If you ask me the most important thing that I could accomplish in my life, or that I would like to be known for when I’m dead and gone: What did I do to protect the life of an unborn child?”



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