The Women’s Law Project

by Jessica Walker

You’re playing a game of Life, and your little pink peg is whizzing around the board in her car. Suddenly, she gets sick. Or she wants to start a family. Or she’s been physically abused.

You read the directions for advice. Problem is, they’re filled with technical jargon and more than 1,000 pages long.

That’s the reality facing women’s health clinics in Pennsylvania. Without access to legal services, providers might have difficulty navigating their responsibilities and ensuring they’re complying with the ever-changing laws. They won’t be able to assist their clients, who predominately lack alternative resources for healthcare.

Fortunately, the Women’s Law Project is there to help.

The Women’s Law Project is the only non-profit, Pennsylvanian public interest law center committed to advancing women’s rights. Its mission is to create a more just and equitable society for women and their families through litigation, legislative initiatives and advocacy.

Founded in Philadelphia in 1974, the Women’s Law Project established a Pittsburgh office in 2002. Ongoing grants from the Elsie H. Hillman Foundation have supported programs such as women’s rights education.

“We fill a role that nobody else does,” said Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney at the Women’s Law Project’s Pittsburgh office. “We provide a diverse range of legal counsel services to the healthcare providers for women. Without our work, they’d be largely out on their own trying to figure out how to get through the maze of legislation and help their patients.”

After noticing increased safety issues outside Pittsburgh’s healthcare facilities, the Women’s Law Project helped establish a 15-foot safety zone ordinance, which passed into law in 2005. This “buffer” prevents people from protesting, picketing or demonstrating around the entrances, including those of abortion clinics. Despite lawsuits, a federal judge upheld the ordinance in 2015.

“The buffer zone works like magic to deescalate the tension and get people in the door safely,” said Frietsche. “Our goal is to keep our providers functioning well. With that, we can lessen the stress on them to provide the essential healthcare that women need.”

A major undertaking of the Women’s Law Project is working with the Pennsylvania Women’s Health Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers committed to promoting evidence-based policy solutions, on the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a bipartisan package of legislative bills that understand the interdependence of women’s well-beings and their economic security.

In 2014, three of these bills passed. One provides equitable protection for domestic violence victims facing eviction, another prohibits intimate partner harassment, and another proposes a study of how working parents’ increased income prevents them from enrolling in programs that allow them to work, such as food stamps and child care assistance. Public hearings in Harrisburg for other Agenda bills have also changed the dialogue surrounding women’s rights.

The Women’s Law Project is also a founding and leading member of the Pennsylvania Campaign for Women’s Health, a collaboration of more than 50 pro-choice local, state and national organizations calling for evidence-based policy solutions to real problems faced by Pennsylvania families.

A familiar face has assisted the Women’s Law Project for years. “There were times when we needed someone who could talk to leaders in the Republican Party, and I turned to Elsie Hillman, always,” said Frietsche. “My relationship with Elsie started not as a funder-grantee relationship. Rather, she was this incredible advocacy resource.”

Frietsche didn’t call Elsie often but says that, when she did, terrible injustices were about to happen. She could trust Elsie to be strong and unafraid.

One project Elsie underwrote was a briefing booklet that offers research about abortion and abortion regulations. The Women’s Law Project presented it at a statewide coalition for pro-choice organizations, and currently uses it to train staff and advocacy leaders. “We had the entire coalition reading and editing it. Everyone’s jaw dropped at the same time when they were paging through it and saw how few providers of abortion care there are in Pennsylvania,” said Frietsche. “It was very eye-opening for people, and it makes our folks more reliable as advocates and spokespeople.”

The Women’s Law Project also deals with litigation concerning domestic violence, workplace conditions for pregnant and nursing women, and safety-net policies that adversely affect lower income women. “We target our resources to women who need free legal services and for issues that are cutting edge. That is, issues likely to impact a large number of women and change the laws,” said Frietsche. “We try to take on cases others won’t take on, either because they’re too risky or because there’s little or no monetary value from them.”

The Women’s Law Project isn’t just a friend for Pennsylvanian women but also for women throughout the country. Three of their cases have appeared before the Supreme Court.

Although women’s rights have made advancements in the last several decades, the Women’s Law Project focuses on safeguarding these rights and ensuring improvements continue for generations to come. Frietsche says their affirmative platform can provide better opportunities for both women and their families.

“Of course, the ultimate goal is that these obstacles against women would go away,” said Frietsche. “The hope is that our public policy shifts in a much more positive direction, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t happen.”
When it comes to women’s rights, the Women’s Law Project already has the directions in hand, and they’re ready to assist.