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Protests continue to haunt Roe v. Wade decision

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Anti-abortion activists protest in front of the White House on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in Washington.
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Anti-abortion activists participate in a 'Memorial Die-in' outside the White House on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014.

Forty-one years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision through Roe v. Wade: A woman, in consultation with her physician, has a constitutionally protected right to choose abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.

On Wednesday, pro-life advocates from religious schools, pregnancy crisis centers, churches and communities nationwide gather at the Capitol for the 40th annual March for Life. Organizations in Southwestern Pennsylvania dispatched more than 100 buses for the 250-mile trek, where officials estimate 400,000 plan to protest the law.

In Pennsylvania, abortion rights are restricted.

Nearly half of Pennsylvania’s abortion clinics shut their doors in the three years after authorities raided the Philadelphia clinic where convicted killer Kermit Gosnell habitually violated late-term abortion and informed consent laws.

In 2005, the state had 56 abortion providers. Today that number is in the teens.

“The landscape has definitely changed,” Planned Parenthood CEO Kim Evert said.

Legislation filed shortly after Gosnell’s 2011 arrest held clinics to the same standard as outpatient surgery centers. For many, the expensive renovations to hallways, ceiling tiles, flooring, heating and air systems and elevators proved too much.

Advocates contend the regulations did nothing to improve the quality of care.

“For many years, maybe for several decades, the primary response from Pennsylvania legislators to women’s health needs is to restrict abortion more and more,” said Sue Frietsche, Women’s Law Project senior staff attorney. “I am certain it was the intent of many of the legislators that if the bills passed, abortion providers would close.”

“Well, of course it was,” said Helen Cindrich, executive director for Pittsburgh’s People Concerned for the Unborn Child. “Pittsburgh is a pro-life town.”

A Gallup poll conducted shortly before Gosnell’s conviction found 26 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances; 20 percent say it should be illegal in all circumstances. A 52 percent majority opted for something in between, as has been the case in nearly every Gallup measure of abortion since 1975.

But even polls can be polarizing.

A 2013 Gallup survey found significantly more Americans want Roe v. Wade upheld rather than overturned, 53 percent to 29 percent, though the number who call themselves pro-life and pro-choice are split almost evenly, 48 percent to 45 percent.

“There is still a need for safe and legal abortion for women who feel it’s their best option,” Evert said.

Abortion rates in Pennsylvania have declined since 1980, when 23.1 percent of women between the childbearing ages of 15 and 44 opted for abortion, the highest annual percentage ever recorded. That figure has hovered around 14 percent for nearly two decades, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Many pro-choice advocates cite more reliable contraceptives and better education as reasons for the decline. Evert and Frietsche contend many women prefer driving to Ohio or New York where the procedure can be much more time-efficient.

Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy advisor for pro-life group Operation Rescue, said the answer is simpler: “Maybe fewer people are getting abortions.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or [email protected].

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