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Lawmakers Are Exploiting COVID-19 Circumstances to Ban Safe Abortion Access

Natalie Peña

April 10th, 2020


With all the anguish, loss, and grief being felt across the world due to a global pandemic, a political fight may feel entirely out of place. Yet certain lawmakers’ actions have provoked exactly that over the past few days.

On Wednesday, March 25th, Planned Parenthood filed an emergency lawsuit against the state of Texas in response to a bill passed by Governor Greg Abbott, in which all non-essential services were banned in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The lawsuit specifically concerned the fact that all surgical abortions and medication abortions (also known as abortion pills) were affected by the ban, leaving the medical procedure in an indefinite hiatus. Interestingly enough, on the same day a Texas appeals court passed this ban, Governor Abbott included attending church on the list of “essential services” that were permitted to continue during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the state of Texas is not alone. Four other states — Ohio, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Alabama — have passed similars bans and bills, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to limit access to safe, legal abortions by grouping abortions with other activities that pose a risk of furthering the spread of the virus through human contact. In Ohio, after all nonessential medical procedures were cancelled, Attorney General Dave Yost sent letters to abortion clinics accusing them of violating the order; in Oklahoma, Governor Kevin Scott included abortion procedures in an order suspending elective surgeries unless deemed “necessary to prevent serious health risks to the unborn child’s mother”; and in Iowa, Governor Kimberly Reynolds included abortion in an order she enacted halting all elective and non-emergency medical procedures. These rollbacks shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who followed the news in 2019, when 378 abortion restrictions were introduced in the five months between January and May of that year —  the highest share of proposed bans since Roe v. Wade. As Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio and Iowa all introduced restrictive bans in 2019 that block abortion before fetal viability, in violation of Roe’s standard, it begs one to question the intent behind the present continuation of these rollbacks: are they being done out of genuine fear of abortion’s viability as a transmitter of COVID-19, or are lawmakers exploiting the pandemic to once again try and limit safe access to abortion?

Every state has taken action to limit or ban personal contact in efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and many states have chosen to ban non-essential medical procedures, such as dermatological, ophthalmological, and dental procedures, as this epidemic is not to be underestimated or overlooked. Taking measures to stop the spread of the virus, such as staying inside, washing your hands, and eliminating close contact between people is crucial and necessary. This matter needs to be handled with complete solemnity and severity. But exploiting the fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic to continue the attack against abortion laws by labeling abortions as non-essential is outrageous and wholly inconsistent with medical rulings. While the ACLU, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and various other organizations have come together to file legal challenges against most of the laws passed by the five states — some of which have already been blocked by federal court — the misinformation that led to the bills’ conception needs to be addressed.

Abortion is essential and time sensitive, as recognized by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Board of Obstetrics & Gynecology. Bills like the one in Texas, that claim abortion can wait, push what would have been first-trimester abortions to the second trimester, though abortion in Texas becomes illegal roughly halfway through the second trimester. Texas’s bill is particularly disgraceful: shutting down access to abortion — a medical procedure that involves contact between a patient and a few doctors — over concerns of the virus spreading, but allowing people to continue to attend church — an act that involves contact between a mass of people, has been called a “super-spreading event” by some epidemiologists, and is not medically necessary — is a slap in the face to the millions of people across the United States who have uteruses. It is also worth noting that banning abortion does not, in fact, ban all abortion — only safe access to legal abortion. People in need of an abortion would have to resort to crossing state lines to recieve medical care, which is expensive, inaccessible for some, and is the type of risk-taking travel that shouldn’t be encouraged during the middle of a pandemic.

These are scary and unprecedented times, but we must continue to hold lawmakers responsible for the continuous attacks against reproductive rights. The opinions and morals of some shouldn’t jeopardize the health and safety of everyone with a uterus in various states. That’s something that we as a country shouldn’t still be confused about. Exploiting a global pandemic to manipulate the public into believing that people shouldn’t have safe access to necessary reproductive healthcare –– even in this time of crisis –– is not the way to take care of people in need.

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