On March 18th, as the reality of the coronavirus crisis was becoming painfully apparent to Americans, the Idaho Legislature was turning its attention to health care concerns of another kind: making sure that women were denied access to abortion at some nebulous future date. Across the country, state legislatures had gone into recess, heeding the social-distancing advice of medical professionals. Not Idaho. For at least an hour on the floor of the House, there was vigorous debate over Senate Bill 1385, a so-called trigger law that would immediately criminalize abortion in the state if Roe v. Wade were overturned or a constitutional amendment gave states the right to criminalize it themselves. Under the law, performing an abortion would be a felony, except in instances of officially reported rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother. “Everyone needs to face the consequences of their own personal choices,” Rep. Megan Blanksma said in her closing debate, just before the bill passed 49-18 and made its way to Gov. Brad Little’s desk to be signed, which it was last Tuesday.
While states like Texas, Ohio, and Iowa have ignored the directives of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and used the coronavirus pandemic to attempt to declare abortion a “nonessential” surgery (Texas’ attorney general even barred medication abortions, which aren’t surgical at all — though a judge blocked those measures, at least for now), other states, like Idaho, have forged ahead with business as usual, pushing through anti-abortion (and anti-trans and anti-affirmative action) bills while their constituents’ attention is understandably pulled elsewhere. In other words, COVID-19 has provided just the excuse the right has long been seeking to overturn Roe by way of subterfuge. As Rahm Emanuel put it, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.”
In early March, Idaho lawmakers conceded to Gov. Brad Little’s plea to transfer a mere $2 million to the Governor’s Emergency Fund to help respond to the coronavirus — the only COVID-19 relief that was considered before the legislature finally adjourned on March 20th. Yet on March 4th, the House had taken the time to pass a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood, pulling money that would never have gone toward abortions (federal and state money was already restricted in that regard) but rather would have paid for cancer screenings, STI testing, and birth control. On March 16th, just four days before the indefinite shutdown, the Senate State Affairs committee passed that bill out of committee, readying it for a vote. “We’re talking about lifesaving health care, and they’re attacking that,” says Mistie Tolman, Idaho state director of Planned Parenthood Votes, a political action committee. “They’re spending their time in the state House trying to defund a health care provider during a global health pandemic.”
Despite statements from Gov. Andy Beshear asking the legislature to quickly pass a budget and go home, the Kentucky legislature still remains open. That means all eight anti-abortion bills that have been filed since the session commenced on January 7th are up for consideration, including a constitutional amendment that would declare that there is no right to abortion in the Commonwealth (if approved by 60 percent of each chamber, it would go on the ballot at the next general election, where it would need to be approved by a majority of voters). On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary committee heard House Bill 451, which would allow Kentucky’s anti-abortion attorney general to have oversight over abortion facilities and regulations, sidestepping the more neutral Cabinet for Health and Family Services. It would also give the attorney general power to enforce the governor’s ban on elective medical procedures, adding the language that this was “including but not limited to abortion.” After it was passed out of committee with a unanimous vote, Senate Republicans actually tried to fold it into SB 150, a COVID relief bill — meaning they tried to restrict health care in the very bill meant to provide aid during a health care crisis (it was later removed).
Meanwhile, SB 9, a “born alive” bill passed by the Senate on January 27th, awaits debate in the Kentucky House when it reconvenes this coming Wednesday. While purporting to protect infants born alive after failed abortions (a basically nonexistent situation), what it would do is further stigmatize the procedure and force doctors to provide life support to — and prolong the suffering of — babies whose medical issues make them unable to live outside the womb. Not only is such a bill controversial, but it’s also redundant with a 2002 bill passed by the U.S. Congress. Its purpose in the face of the current health crisis is baffling.
“I mean, the state is practically shut down. Schools are shut down. Day cares are shut down. Movies theaters, bars, restaurants are all shut down. We shouldn’t be fighting controversial bills at this moment. We should be working to help people who are directly impacted by all of these shutdowns who don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from,” says Tamarra Wieder, Kentucky state director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Indiana and Kentucky, who technically can’t even fight the bills, as the capital has been closed to the public since March 17th. “There is not an ability for people to democratically participate in this process.”
Kentucky Democratic Rep. Charles Booker (who happens to be running for Mitch McConnell’s seat in the U.S. Senate) agrees. “They’re playing politics,” he tells me. “I know very clearly that they are using this moment — when a lot of opposition, a lot of opposing perspectives, cannot be there — to quickly move these types of bills forward that they know that they’d catch a lot of hell for if the public were there.” Out of concern for his health — and as a type of protest — he’s refused to show up for hearings or cast his vote on any bill that does not directly address COVID-19 relief or the budget, which the legislature is required to pass before adjourning. “I’m a Type 1 diabetic, and I’ve got two little girls, a family that I want to be around for,” he tells me. “Right now our legislature has not been leading by example.”
Which calls into question the motives of those legislators who are focusing on pushing abortion legislation instead of on the health and well-being of their colleagues and constituents. “For some legislators, I think [abortion] is a really held conviction,” Wieder says. “But I think it reinforces that they’re not pro-life; they’re just pro-birth.” Her hope at present is that, as other states have done, Kentucky will end its session promptly. “I don’t know where this ends, to be honest,” she sighs. “I really don’t.