Amid the coronavirus pandemic, while the rest of the nation is focusing on staying healthy and social distancing, anti-abortion politicians and movement leaders have been doing the only thing they know — pursuing an agenda to shut down abortion clinics. Capitalizing on the mantra to never let a crisis go to waste, they are succeeding in ways they never could, absent the global public-health nightmare.
The chief vehicle they have been using is shutting down what they deem nonessential health care. By now, most people are familiar with orders from mayors or governors that only essential businesses can remain open. Most places that have put these orders in place have also specified that medical facilities can no longer perform elective or nonessential procedures.
And that’s just the opening anti-abortion activists needed. Unlike the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and several other medical organizations that quickly announced that “abortion should not be categorized as such a procedure [because] abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care,” anti-abortion politicians have tried to order clinics to close. Dave Yost, the anti-abortion attorney general of Ohio, wrote to clinics last week that they must “immediately stop performing nonessential or elective surgical abortions.” And Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office released a statement that “no one is exempt from the governor’s executive order on medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures, including abortion providers.”
Right now, clinics in Ohio and Texas are still operating and are considering their legal options. They are pointing to the reality that delaying abortion can result in harmful consequences to patients. As ACOG recognized in its statement last week, and the Supreme Court wrote in its 2016 abortion decision, delay in accessing abortion care increases the cost of care, heightens the risk of complications, times women out of simpler medical procedures, and risks pushing them past the legal limit for abortion. For instance, Ohio and Texas ban abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy.
For these reasons, many states have taken the opposite approach and recognized that abortion is indeed essential health care and must remain available during this pandemic. For instance, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s shutdown order specifically allows abortion and family planning to continue: “Nothing in this order shall be construed to limit access to the full range of family planning services and procedures, including terminations of pregnancies, whether in a hospital, ambulatory surgery center, physician office, or other location.”
This approach is the only one consistent with the reality of abortion care in America. Even in normal times, abortion care in many states is, as we call it in our newly published book about abortion barriers, an obstacle course, a set of laws and regulations that place hoops in the path of women choosing to have an abortion. Using the coronavirus pandemic to try to make abortion even more inaccessible — including shutting down all clinics in a state — would just make abortion care even harder for the most vulnerable members of society. Travel to another state, for example, will put those seeking abortions at greater risk for contracting the coronavirus.
In states where abortion has not been banned, providers are doing everything possible to keep their patients and themselves safe. They are utilizing techniques meant to minimize unnecessary physical contact with patients, making ample use of video and phone conferencing where appropriate. In the clinics, patients are carefully kept at a distance from each other, prompting one clinic director to comment jokingly to colleagues, “Our waiting rooms now look like we have adult women sitting in ‘time out.’ ”
Meanwhile, not to be outdone by state anti-abortion politicians, anti-abortion movement leaders are using the pandemic to try to shut down all abortion in this country. Today, dozens of leaders wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking him to shut down all surgical and chemical abortions because of the crisis. Their letter focuses on the need to “free up much-needed medical equipment and decrease the demand” placed on hospitals from the rare post-abortion follow-up care.
The goal here is obvious. Stymied by half a century of unsuccessfully trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion extremists are looking at the current global crisis not as a public-health emergency but rather as an opportunity. They want abortion ended, full stop, so they are trying to manipulate coronavirus to do so.
David S. Cohen and Carole Joffe are authors of the newly published book Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America (Univ. California Press 2020).