Paid Abortion Leave For City Employees Poses New Questions

In Boston, Pittsburgh and Portland, Oregon, pregnancy loss ‘bereavement’ policies have been extended to include elective abortions.

The new approach has led to a disagreement among supporters of legal abortion. Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who proposed the policy change, said she has heard from some who worry that new approach suggests that there might be something wrong or traumatic about abortion.
The new approach has led to a disagreement among supporters of legal abortion. Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who proposed the policy change, said she has heard from some who worry that new approach suggests that there might be something wrong or traumatic about abortion. (photo: Juan Francisco Gomez / Shutterstock)

BOSTON — Three U.S. cities that offer paid leave to city employees after the birth of a child have recently extended that benefit to abortion.

In Boston, a city employee who has an abortion can now get up to 12 weeks of paid leave, thanks to a policy approved earlier this fall.

In Portland, Oregon and Pittsburgh, the benefit is three days.

The new approach has led to a disagreement among supporters of legal abortion. Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who proposed the policy change, said she has heard from some who worry that new approach suggests that there might be something wrong or traumatic about abortion.

Edwards, the prime sponsor of the policy and a supporter of legal abortion herself, acknowledged those concerns during a public meeting this past summer.

“This is for folks who are pro-choice and were concerned about a stigma being put on termination, or a sense that it is unhealthy or causes pain or causes immense amount of emotional turmoil. That is not the goal of this,“ Edwards said July 13 during a meeting of the council’s Committee on Government Operations.

She added that the new ordinance is not trying to “in any way provide additional stigma … about the termination of a pregnancy — in any way, shape, or form.”

Edwards during the July 13 meeting read a statement from the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, Rebecca Hart Holder, who framed paid leave for abortions as an aspect of reproductive freedom.

“For many families and pregnant people, pregnancy loss can bring unimaginable pain and grief. Supporting people coping with pregnancy loss by allowing them to take the time they need to grieve and heal is critically important,” Holder’s statement said. “Reproductive freedom is the ability to decide if, when, and how to have a family and for those who experience pregnancy loss, it is the ability to mourn and care for themselves and their family.” 


12 Weeks Off

In each of the three cities, the new paid leave policies also cover miscarriages, stillbirths and failed in vitro fertilization implantations.

Boston’s policy, which took effect Sept. 17, offers 100% of base wages for four weeks, 75% for the next four weeks, and 50% for the last four weeks of the leave.

Supporters of the policies say they acknowledge the pain caused by loss of pregnancy of any kind and the need for paid time off to deal with it.

Critics find the abortion aspect of the policies chilling.

Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized the paid-leave policies during a recent speech about cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that could lead the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 high court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

“In Democrat-run cities across America, they’re now providing financial incentives for abortion by implementing paid abortion leave. In Boston, for example, government employees can receive 12 weeks of paid leave for an abortion — the same benefit provided for childbirth,” Pence said Nov. 30. “In days gone by, progressives viewed abortion as a necessary evil to be tolerated. Remember when they used to say abortion should be ‘safe, legal, but rare’? Well, those days are over.”

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said city officials “are trying to show that they are abortion-friendly.”

“They are trying to promote abortion. Giving someone 12 weeks off after an abortion? That is going to be encouraging the procedure,” Tobias said in a telephone interview with the Register.

In Pittsburgh, an early version of the ordinance included language prohibiting employees from using bereavement time to get an abortion: “For the process of terminating a pregnancy, the City employee is barred from taking paid bereavement leave, and instead may choose to take medical leave,” the early version stated.

But that language was struck by amendment before the City Council approved the ordinance on Sept. 14.

Pittsburgh Councilman Bobby Wilson, the chief sponsor of the ordinance, explained the reason for the change in the language to his fellow City Council members this way: “And the other amendment is striking some language, and working with HR to implement the policy.”

The Register asked city officials whether that means a city employee can use paid time off to get an abortion. An aide to Wilson could not be reached for comment by deadline. A representative for Mayor  William Peduto of Pittsburgh also did not respond to a request for comment.


Abortion Tacked On

In each of the three cities, paid abortion leave hasn’t come about as a standalone proposal, but instead has been included in recent efforts to expand bereavement benefits for public employees.

In Portland, for instance, city administrators and other employees started with a move to redefine what “close relative” means for its funeral and bereavement leave in a world of non-traditional relationships.

“What started out as a way to be more inclusive of our LGBTQ city employees, who are more likely to have chosen families due to stigmatism and historic barriers, also included pregnancy loss. This is a perfect example of how the rising tide of equity can lift all boats — in this case, the various needs of all of our city employees,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said during a Portland City Council meeting Oct. 6. “The whole city benefits when we have a workforce that feel that they can bring their best selves to the workforce.”

After a City Council voted Oct. 14, Portland now offers city employees paid leave of up to three days “due to pregnancy loss including miscarriage, stillbirth, or other loss” — and the city defines “other loss” as including “any other loss of pregnancy including termination, irrespective of whether deemed medically necessary.”

City Council members did not address abortion specifically when they discussed the new policy during two council meetings in October. Witnesses who came before city councilors focused on miscarriages and non-traditional family relationships.

But in Pittsburgh, abortion came up during public discussions. 

A subcommittee of the City Council heard a presentation from Dr. Grace Ferguson, an obstetrician-gynecologist whose practice includes what a biography on her website calls “safe, compassionate abortion care for those in need.” She told city councilors her practice includes “complex abortion care.”

She spoke of women who go for an anatomy scan 20 weeks into their pregnancy to find that their fetus has a serious medical problem that may lead to death shortly after birth.

“At that point is another big moment of pregnancy loss, because you find that your fetus is not going to survive, or that there is something really catastrophic happening. That, I think, is really what this bill is speaking to in terms of termination in pregnancy loss. And that is certainly in the single digit percentages. But it feels like in my practice that it happens almost every day,” Ferguson said during the meeting Sept. 8.

She said many women in that situation make what she called “a really compassionate decision to end the pregnancy at that time so that they don’t have to birth the child that will die immediately afterwards.”

Some can’t schedule an abortion at a hospital “for potentially weeks,” she said, and then, since they don’t have a baby at the end of their pregnancy, they don’t qualify for paid leave from their employer.

“They have whatever procedure they have — induction, surgery — and then they bleed, their milk comes in, they probably still look kind of pregnant, and they don’t get any acknowledgment from their workplace that they’ve had a loss, that they’ve had a birth of some sort. And so then they also just have to go right back to work,” Dr. Ferguson said. “Which is a lot. It’s pretty heavy.”

Only about 1% of abortions in the United States in 2019 took place at an estimated gestational age of 21 weeks or greater, according to statistics compiled in 43 states plus the District of Columbia that were surveyed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 93% of abortions in 2019 took place at 13 weeks into pregnancy or before, according to those same CDC findings.

A pro-life obstetrician-gynecologist contacted by the Register said employers should do more to help women who have miscarriages, but that providing a financial benefit to women who have abortions is the wrong approach.

“Mothers of children who die, the grief is excruciating. I speak from personal experience,” said Dr. Donna Harrison, chief executive officer of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, headquartered in Washington D.C. “I speak with compassion for mothers whose babies have died. Our society handles miscarriage very poorly. They don’t know what to do with a mom whose baby has died.”

“The question with paid abortion leave is:  is this a way of incentivizing women — especially economically disadvantaged women — to have an abortion?” Harrison said. “This is a false compassion. The more compassionate approach is to solve the economic and social problems pressuring the woman to consider abortion.”


City Officials Quiet

In each of the three cities, the new paid leave policies that include abortion passed with unanimous votes by the city council and support from the mayor.

Yet most city officials who voted for the policies haven’t spoken publicly about the abortion aspect of it.

The Register sought comments from the press offices of the mayors of Boston, Portland, and Pittsburgh, as well as from all 13 city councilors in Boston, all four commissioners who serve on the City Council in Portland, and all nine city council members in Pittsburgh. None of them responded by deadline.

Some pro-lifers see a silver lining in the new policies — an acknowledgment that abortion causes mental anguish. Tobias, who heads the National Right to Life Committee, also suggested that the bureaucratic category used in Pittsburgh and Portland sends the right message.

“I think Pittsburgh and Portland have it more accurate. They have their abortion leave in their policy that is supposed to be for bereavement — which means someone has died,” Tobias said. “They are acknowledging or admitting that someone has died in that abortion procedure.”

Register correspondent Matt McDonald is the editor of New Boston Post.