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December 17, 2022

Philly votes to expand protections for abortion seekers, medical providers in wake of Supreme Court ruling

The trio of bills were passed during the final City Council session of the year, shielding residents from 'vigilante' lawsuits and strengthening anti-discrimination laws

City Council approved a trio of bills this week to strengthen abortion rights in Philadelphia and protect abortion seekers and medical providers from vigilante lawsuits and other discriminatory practices. 

The bills were introduced in September by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, Councilmember Kendra Brooks, and former Councilmember Helen Gym, who resigned from her position in order to run for mayor. The legislative package is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson earlier this year, which made abortion legality a matter of state law.

The legislation prohibits the voluntary sharing of information that could be used in a criminal case or civil lawsuit to penalize a person for seeking care that is legal in Pennsylvania. A court order would have to be filed in order for the information to be disclosed to any party. Other pieces of the legislation protect abortion seekers and medical providers from "vigilante" lawsuits lawsuits filed by residents from other states, particularly where abortion is banned or restricted. 

"As the elected representatives of this city, we cannot idly stand by and let residents and legislators in far away states controls what goes on here in Philadelphia," Gauthier said. "This is a public health issue. We need to protect the safety of all birthing persons, babies, and children here in Philadelphia, regardless of whether they call this city home, by strengthening their right to privacy when accessing reproductive healthcare." 

A third bill included in the legislative package updates the city's anti-discrimination laws to prevent workplace discrimination against employees for reproductive health care decisions, including abortion, fertility assistance, and birth control. 

In addition to the three bills, a resolution creating a task force of administration officials, City Council members, and health care stakeholders to expand reproductive health care passed in October. 

Two of the three bills — Gym's bill on medical privacy and Gauthier's bill against vigilante lawsuits — passed with a 15-1 vote. Councilmember David Oh, the lone Republican on City Council, opposed both bills because he believes that those protections are a matter of state law and are outside of the city's jurisdiction. Brooks' anti-discrimination bill passed unanimously. 

"The Dobbs decision shows the importance of clarifying our rights into the text of the law, especially at the local and state levels," said Amal Bass, interim co-exective director of the Women's Law Project. "Anti-abortion states threaten to interfere with abortion care that is legal here. There is so much more we must do to protect our rights and make abortion accessible, but these three bills are an important part of the protections we need." 

This is not the first time that city officials have affirmed their support for abortion rights. In August, Philadelphia sent $500,000 in emergency funding to the Abortion Liberation Fund of Pennsylvania, which provides resources and financial assistance to people seeking abortions in the state. 

In July, the state's Republican-controlled Congress approved an amendment to Pennsylvania's constitution that would declare there is no right to an abortion or to the funding of abortion. The amendment could reach the ballot for referendum as soon as May 2023 if it's approved by both houses of the state legislature early next year. 

"When the Dobbs decision came down, we saw the rage and sorrow of a city that refused to have their bodily autonomy threatened out in the streets," Brooks said. "We marched in step with a diverse, broad movement that demanded a future defined not by shame, stigma, and hatred, but by freedom — the freedom to control your body, your family, and the course of your life." 

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which established the right to an abortion through the 14th Amendment's right to privacy. The decision reversed course on nearly 50 years of precedent, allowing state legislatures to decide whether or not abortion is legal in their state. 

Abortion is now illegal in 13 states across the country, according to the New York Times. In Pennsylvania, abortion remains legal through 24 weeks of pregnancy. 

In July, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order to protect abortion access for out-of-state travelers. The order prohibits state agencies from taking part in investigations launched by other states over abortion services provided in Pennsylvania. 

When Attorney General Josh Shapiro succeeds Wolf to become the state's 48th governor, he has said that he will continue to veto any anti-abortion bill that comes across his desk.