Alexis McGill Johnson is the acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Women are trying to survive this. Moms laid off or missing wages to stay home with their children, still trying to make ends meet. Women in abusive relationships, weathering shelter in place orders. Women hiding in their closets, trying to get through one more conference call between homeschooling and tantrums. Health care workers, the majority of whom are women, going to work on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Low-wage workers deemed essential, some leaving their children at home, continuing to put themselves at risk so that the rest of us have what we need to survive.
We are doing the majority of child care, as schools and daycares close. If our families get sick, we will do the majority of caregiving. And as always happens, Black and Latino communities will face the harshest economic consequences, so women of color will face difficult decisions about how to support their families.
We are holding our families, communities, and this country together through this crisis. While we do, certain politicians are exploiting the fear and urgency of the moment to take away our access to health care.
Governors in states including Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Alabama used this pandemic as an excuse to block patients’ access to abortion. Alongside other abortion providers across the country, Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the ACLU, the Lawyering Project have filed lawsuits seeking to ensure people can continue to get the care they need.
And last month, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, a bill that will provide much-needed support for people and businesses hit hard by the public health emergency and the resulting economic crisis. At the same time, anti-reproductive health members of Congress used the urgency of the moment to target Planned Parenthood and the people we serve. They expanded the discriminatory Hyde amendment — which bars patients who rely on Medicaid from using their insurance to cover abortion — to apply to new emergency funding for states. They tried to exclude Planned Parenthood from some relief funds, though our doctors, nurses and staff are on the ground at health centers across the country, caring for patients through the crisis.
What these politicians don’t understand — or willfully ignore — is that no one stops needing sexual and reproductive health care in a public health crisis. People still have sex. They still need birth control and STI testing and treatment, and safe, legal abortion. In fact, they may need it more — there is evidence that people have more sex as they seek comfort in times of stress, and social disruption can mean less protection from sexual assault.
Abortion is essential because it’s a time-sensitive health service. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology have said so. Keeping people from getting sexual and reproductive health care during a public health crisis only makes the crisis worse. What are people in Texas likely to do if denied the ability to get a safe, legal abortion? People who would have otherwise wanted medical supervision may try to self-manage an abortion. Others will travel to another state, taking the risk of exposing themselves or others to the new coronavirus. Or they will simply be forced to wait until it is too late and they cannot get the care they need.
Now is the time to be making abortion more accessible, not less. The same women trying to survive this pandemic — the women struggling to make ends meet or to get through self-isolation with an abusive partner — should not be forced to have a child against their will. They should have ready access to birth control, STI testing and treatment, and abortion. And it’s unacceptable that in a $2 trillion aid bill, their needs are still not met.
That’s why Planned Parenthood exists. Because we believe that every person deserves health care that gives them control over their own lives and futures. We have been a foundational part of the public health infrastructure of this country for more than 100 years. Fifty-seven percent of our health centers are in medically underserved communities. Nearly three in four Planned Parenthood patients are at or below 150% of the poverty level.
To pretend Planned Parenthood is not essential is to put our 2.4 million patients at risk. It is never okay to play politics with people’s health. During a global health crisis, it is morally indefensible.
We have been there with our patients through many national and international crises — the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, two World Wars, 9/11, and so much more. Today, we need our leaders to bolster our public health infrastructure. That means sexual and reproductive health too.
When this crisis is over, Planned Parenthood will still be here, providing care like we have for more than 100 years. No question.
The question is whether our country’s leaders act with wisdom and foresight to give people the care they need — or exploit this moment for their own political gain.