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After Women's March, Philly sees surge in Planned Parenthood activists

It was going to be a meeting for maybe 200 people, with small groups seated around tables, developing strategies and action plans.

Leaders of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania quickly realized that they had vastly underestimated their supporters' desire to gather in solidarity and a show of strength.

More than 400 women and men packed a West Philadelphia church on Wednesday evening, eager to fight back against the Trump administration's anti-abortion policies and GOP efforts to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood's health services for low-income patients.

The night's star speaker – and one of the reasons for the turnout – left no doubt about a lobbying strategy she favors.

"Every member of Congress is going home in February," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "My vision is that all the pink hats I saw at the march in Washington will show up in their offices."

She was referring to the Women's March on Washington, which grew from a Facebook post by a Hawaii retiree into an unprecedented protest against a newly inaugurated president. More than a million people demonstrated on Saturday in Washington and in cities (including Philadelphia) across the country and around the world.

"The threat of this administration is looming large and people are reacting to it," Dayle Steinberg, president and CEO of the Southeastern Pennsylvania affiliate, said before the meeting. "They're frightened, but they're turning that fear into anger, and that anger into action. People know that reproductive rights are at stake like never before."

One small example: After the election, her affiliate, which serves Philadelphia and the four surrounding Pennsylvania counties, was deluged with calls from more than 500 people who wanted to become volunteers.

Richards hammered what reproductive rights advocates see as the irony of efforts to curb those rights: teenage pregnancy,  unintended pregnancies, and abortion are at historic lows.

"And we have reduced maternal mortality due to unsafe abortion by two-thirds," Richards said.

She called President Trump's reinstatement Monday of the so-called global gag rule a "heartbreaking" step backward.

The policy, which bars U.S. aid to overseas organizations that provide or promote abortion, was first introduced by President Ronald Reagan. It has since been rescinded by Democratic presidents and reinstated by Republican ones. But Trump expanded the policy to apply to organizations that get aid for global health -- not just family planning -- so maternity, anti-Zika, and HIV/AIDS programs could be affected.

Planned Parenthood rented space for Wednesday's gathering from the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 23 S. 38th St. The church took no position on the meeting.

Besides Richards, the speakers included Cherry Hill native Ali Larter, an actress best known for her roles on TV's Heroes. When she moved to Los Angeles at age 19, she said, she turned to a Planned Parenthood clinic for gynecological care.

"I wasn't making a political statement," she said. "I just wanted high-quality care."

The looming battle to protect that care was the overarching theme of the night.

Trump, who in the past said he supported abortion rights, is now so opposed that he has joined with Vice President Pence and GOP leaders in working to defund Planned Parenthood,  the nation's leading abortion provider with 324,000 pregnancy terminations last year, about a third of the U.S. total.

But the organization has been prohibited since 1976 from using federal funds for abortions, which made up 3 percent of its medical services last year.

The defunding would deny Planned Parenthood reimbursement though Medicaid, the insurance program for the poor, or Title X family planning grants for services such as Pap smears, breast exams, STD testing, and contraceptives. The payments amounted to $450 million last year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Anti-abortion activists contend that community health clinics could absorb the two million women and men now served by Planned Parenthood. Health policy researchers have dismissed that idea as unrealistic, not only because of the magnitude of the shift, but because some rural areas have no clinics other than Planned Parenthood.

Given the complexities of the Medicaid law, the federal budget process, and now, GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the legal obstacles to defunding Planned Parenthood are unclear.

"We're fighting to keep them from doing it," Richards said. "I do think it's an open question whether they can do it. But the outrage you hear is from people who can't believe they would even try to do it."