“Real People Making Real Choices”: Abortion advocates make their case on Capitol Hill

Kelsey Leigh, 36, of Mt. Lebanon, outside of Pittsburgh, went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday as a “patient storyteller” in a bid to bolster Pennsylvania congressmen’s support for abortion rights.

She met with US Senator John Fetterman, D-Pa., the same day a new survey showed that people are overwhelmingly concerned about the status of abortion access in post-Roe America.

“We remind our elected officials that people are overwhelmingly supportive of access to abortion, particularly in Pennsylvania,” Leigh told the Capital star. “We need to keep fighting to expand access and just use the word ‘abortion’ and talk about what’s actually happening in the lives of voters like me.”

Leigh said she had an abortion in 2016 at 22 weeks pregnant after a severe fetal abnormality was discovered. A month later, Pennsylvania legislators tried to ban abortion after 20 weeks, and Leigh said it motivated her to become active in the abortion rights movement.

“It was very important to me to get the truth out in the midst of the rhetoric,” she said. “I grew up in a supportive family and it was still very tough. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for patients to undergo these decisions while then seeing themselves being discussed and it was all wrong and wrong to say we don’t appreciate life. We do not know that eyelids develop after 20 weeks. And that’s just not what it’s about. It’s about real people making real decisions in every moment.”

US Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., meets with reproductive rights officials on Capitol Hill Tuesday, 1/31/23 (submitted photo).

Leigh was among hundreds of reproductive rights advocates with Planned Parenthood who headed to DC this week to lobby lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill.

“It’s valuable when people have the courage to share these stories,” Gabby Richards, director of federal advocacy communications for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told Capital-Star.

“It’s one thing like leaving a flier on a senator’s staff or on the senator himself. It’s another thing for this senator to hear that story head-on, and the next time he’s challenged on his view on abortion or on protecting access to abortion, he can lean on that and say, “Hey, you know what, I met Kelsey from Pennsylvania, and she told me her story, and I know there are a lot more people like her,'” she said.

Leigh was among the advocates who met with Fetterman, who was a staunch supporter of abortion rights, and said during his meeting campaign that they are “sacred and non-negotiable” and that he will work to enshrine access to safe and legal abortion into federal law.

During Fetterman’s debate with Republican opponent Mehmet Oz last October Oz said he wanted “Women, doctors, local political leaders” to make abortion decisions, further highlighting the gulf between the two candidates on the issue and providing ammunition for the Fetterman campaign political ads.

Leigh said she was encouraged by the meeting she and her group had with Fetterman, who reiterated his support for abortion rights.

“That was really strong to hear, especially after having it [former U.S. Sen. Pat] Toomey has represented us for so long that our senator said, “I want to keep hearing from you all, I’m going to say the word ‘abortion,’ and recognize that this is what Pennsylvanians want.”

Fetterman said in a statement after the meeting he was “grateful to those who shared their stories and for the opportunity to discuss the current state of abortion rights in Pennsylvania and our country.” I pledge to always fight for women’s reproductive freedom and will continue the important work here in DC to codify abortion rights into federal law.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade last June, Leigh said she reacted very hard to the news.

“I knew the status of abortion in this country was not good prior to this decision and I know how many people are at risk,” she said.

Leigh worked at an independent abortion clinic in Pittsburgh for six months last year and recalls when West Virginia’s GOP was dominant Legislature passed a near-total nationwide ban on abortion in September.

The morning after the law went into effect, phones in the clinic began ringing.

“We’ve had calls from patients who had appointments that got canceled, who had already gone through all the ridiculous hurdles that exist in conditions like wait times, mandatory ultrasounds, etc., they did it,” she said. “And now they’ve been told they have to travel out of state, and people were like, ‘Am I a felon? Can I go to the hospital if I’m bleeding?’”

According to a new Planned survey by the Parenthood Federation of America Released Tuesday, 75% of Americans fear someone who has an abortion could be charged with a crime or jailed.

And 80% of those surveyed said they were concerned that a healthcare provider might be unsure about performing an abortion for fear they might also be charged with a crime.

The survey of 1,443 US adults, conducted Jan. 2-7, found that 80% of Americans are concerned that law enforcement officials may investigate people with miscarriages or stillbirths if they suspect someone is having a had an abortion. And 70% of respondents support introducing and maintaining abortion rights in their state.

For her part, Leigh said she would consider Tuesday’s meetings in Washington a success if her elected officials commit to publicly using the word “abortion” and ideally stop using the term pro-choice.

“It’s not always a choice for people, and that gets down to the nuance and privacy of where those choices really are,” she said.

Leigh also wants Fetterman and other Pennsylvania politicians to support legislation to protect access to abortion.

“I’m not naive, I know sometimes these laws get passed and we know they probably won’t get passed,” Leigh said. “But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t suggest them and show, ‘Hey, this is important to my constituents, and it’s important to me here in DC.'”

She expects to resume the fight after Tuesday’s visit to the capital, Leigh added.

“This country was founded on the right to self-determination. I really believe in that,” she said. “This message has been adopted into the rhetoric of anti-abortion advocates. And that’s why I keep speaking out.”