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Planned Parenthood President on SCOTUS hearing: "It's a really sad day"

Chelly Hegan
Chelly Hegan

A divided Supreme Court discussed the future of Roe v. Wade Wednesday and appeared ready to uphold a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state of Mississippi is asking the Court to overturn Roe, the 1973 landmark decision legalizing abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, and return the issue to the states. While New York codified abortion rights into state law in 2019, the case has local providers concerned. WAMC’s Jesse King spoke with Chelly Hegan, president of Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood.


What did you make of today's hearing?

I think it's a really sad day for the Court and for the country. I think it was Justice Kagan who pointed out that making politics out of Roe is playing right into the hands of saying that the Court is a political body. You know, we had other cases that were essentially identical cases (to Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization) that the Court did not hear because of the precedent of Roe v. Wade. This case was taken up with the sole purpose of a direct assault on Roe, so that feels pretty sad.

The state of Mississippi in this case is essentially asking to overturn Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and return the issue of abortion to states. What would that mean for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers across the country?

I think it means two things, in a broad sense. For starters, we have 16 states that have trigger laws on the books right now. Boom, those states will have no access to abortion for people who live there. Which means, depending upon your ability to pay to get out of there, your freedoms are going to be limited if you live in those states. And 24 states in total are really poised to severely limit access to abortion. So we're looking at half of our country having no access, or very little access, to basic health care. And that is discriminatory at its core. There is always a way for a wealthy white woman to get an abortion if she needs one. It is not always possible for an immigrant person, or a Black or brown person, or a person who's living paycheck to paycheck to be able to access abortion if they want to. So that's one thing.

But I think it's also important to know that these are all places where abortion has been under attack for decades. And so we do have rights in some states, but it doesn't mean that we have access in other states. Mississippi is talking about closing its only abortion clinic. It's hard for us in New York to imagine what that's like — there is no abortion access in several states in the country right now. Many more have one, maybe two providers. Here in the northeast, we have this experience of more dense populations, we have more access and more freedom. And we all live in the same country. And it doesn't seem right to me that we have more freedoms than our brothers or sisters in Texas or in Nebraska.

Today, there was a lot of discussion around fetal viability, and that mark where a law might say abortion is no longer allowed. Like, "Why shouldn't Mississippi put that line at 15 weeks?" Or, "Why is the current line at like 22 to 24 weeks set by Roe more appropriate?" What do you make of the conversation around that?

I think that's been a problem with Roe since Roe was written. Roe says that the state has a vested interest in the pregnancy after the point of viability. Viability has always been a sort of quasi-science, quasi-religious conversation. Some religions see conception as the moment there's a life. Other religions say it's at birth — there is no real line. It's an artificial conversation, and science has a different approach to it. So Roe's always been sort of faulty on that point. And so that's part of what has continued to cause this churning fight. It's, "Well, what do you mean by viability?" I think one of the arguments today was that science has changed so much, so viability is earlier than it ever was. But the reality is, viability is not 15 weeks. And so even if you want to make a purely viability argument, could this pregnancy exist outside of the parent's body as well as inside? That's not 15 weeks.

Aside from the conversation about viability, there's the matter of whether it's possible to seek care and an abortion in 15 weeks.

I mean, that is always a conversation. I think, for people who have struggled with their fertility, so really worked hard to become pregnant, they probably have a hard time understanding that. Or people who who have never been [pregnant] or could never become pregnant, like Justice Kavanaugh, for example. 15 weeks seems like, "Oh, of course, you're gonna know long before then." But for young people who may not yet have regular periods, for people with certain BMIs whose periods may be non-regular, you're really only talking about three periods. So the first one may have come, you know, you're eight weeks before you know it, and you can get to 12 weeks and still maybe have spotting. So it's entirely possible that people who are not seeking pregnancy, who are on contraception, find themselves pregnant and don't know it. It is not typical, but it is certainly not impossible.

In New York state, abortion rights are pretty well protected by the laws here. But what are you hearing from abortion providers in other areas of the country?

People are really brokenhearted about what this means for our patients. And I think it's so easy to have politicized this discussion. Our country's always been very good at demonizing women and judging women for the choices that they're making. And for providers in states across the country where they're going to have their hands tied and be unable to provide their patients with the care that they're coming to them for, is absolutely heartbreaking.

A decision on the case isn't expected until the summer, but what do you see as being next? Are there any steps that abortion providers can take in the meantime?

I think that's a fantastic question, Jesse, because I am asking myself, like, "What can I do?" Really quick, to remind anybody who will listen: if you're in the Capital Region and you need services, our doors are open, and they're not closing. And yet, my heart is just broken for people across the country who are looking at this dramatic limitation on people's basic right to freedom. I think all we can do is raise our voices. All we can do is keep the gas pedal down and say, "This is not OK." Be loud, be aggressive about it. At any turn, vote in your primaries, hold politicians accountable for what's happened. Be prepared and start preparing. How are we going to get medication, abortion drugs to people who need them? There are not-for-profit organizations that have been working with countries that have severe access issues for people in those countries. We can do that here in this country. We're going to have to treat part of our nation as a third-world health care access space.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."