Republican governors and their administrations have seized onto the growing covid-19 pandemic to stop people from getting abortions, suspending “non-essential” medical procedures and (conveniently for them!) including abortions in that definition. On Tuesday, a coalition of reproductive rights organizations including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and abortion providers filed lawsuits against four states—Iowa, Alabama, Ohio, and Oklahoma—over their efforts to temporarily ban abortions, following a similar lawsuit Planned Parenthood filed in Texas last week.
If it’s incredibly disgusting to use a worldwide pandemic as an excuse to gut abortion access, it’s also unsurprising that anti-abortion advocates are pushing for states and the federal government to shut down clinics and stop people from getting abortions. Ohio was the first state to use the spread of the novel coronavirus as a reason to suspend abortion care, ordering abortion providers to “immediately stop performing non-essential and elective surgical abortions.” Texas quickly followed, and now a whole host of states—all of which have for years tried (and often succeeded) to pass draconian abortion restrictions and shut down clinics—are cynically framing their attempts to suspend abortions under the guise of public health and as a way to ensure that health care professionals have the resources they need, despite the fact that the majority of abortions occur in an outpatient setting.
As Jennifer Dalven, the director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, put it on a press call held on Monday, these temporary bans don’t serve any public health purpose. “It just forces people to stay pregnant against their will,” Dalven said. Take Alabama, where the Department of Public Health initially signaled abortion care would be available under Governor Kay Ivey’s March 19 order suspending “all elective dental and medical procedures.” But following a subsequent order from the agency to suspend all medical procedures except for emergencies or those necessary to “avoid serious harm from an underlying condition,” and the attorney general’s refusal to clarify whether abortions are included in that suspension, abortion clinics in the state have been forced to cancel abortion appointments scheduled for Monday. But after the attorney general refused to clarify whether abortions are included under a subsequent order, which suspends all medical procedures except for emergencies, abortion clinics in the state have been forced to cancel abortion appointments scheduled for Monday.
According to AL.com, without a court injunction, at least one clinic client who has an abortion scheduled for Tuesday would be too far along in their pregnancy to obtain one legally in the state. According to advocates, hundreds of people seeking abortions have already been turned away in states like Texas. “These patients are really left with nowhere to go,” Molly Duane, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said on a press call.
Defining abortion as a “non-essential” procedure flies in the face of the recommendations issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which is urging that abortion care continue during the pandemic. “Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care. It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible,” ACOG wrote in a statement. The group continued: “The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person’s life, health, and well-being.”
As Alexis McGill Johnson, the acting president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, wrote in a statement, “A global pandemic is not an excuse to attack essential, time-sensitive medical procedures like abortion. Yet that’s exactly what anti-abortion politicians and activists are trying to do, instead of working together to ensure everyone has access to health care.” McGill Johnson continued: “These political distractions cost valuable time and resources that our state and federal officials cannot afford to waste. Abortion is essential and patients who need care cannot wait. This is what it’s come down to: court battles just so doctors and nurses can care for patients during a public health crisis. Anti-abortion politicians have gone too far.”