On March 20, Ohio became the first state to use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to ban abortions, with the state’s attorney general calling pregnancy terminations “non-essential” health services.1
After Ohio opened that door, anti-choice governors and attorneys general in other states rushed to join them. During the week of March 23, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Alabama all announced restrictions of one sort or another. A week later, on March 30, federal judges overrode the bans in Texas, Ohio, and Alabama, but the following day, judges appointed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals by George W. Bush and Donald Trump re-instated the Texas ban, leaving Texans in need of care unsure of what they will, and won’t, be able to do next.
Anti-choice state executive branches weren’t alone. In mid-March, Rolling Stone reported, while many state legislators were working to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on their citizens, anti-choice legislators in Idaho rushed a bill to Gov. Brad Little’s desk that would immediately criminalize abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Little signed the “trigger” law on March 24. Meanwhile, Idaho passed a bill to defund Planned Parenthood services, including cancer screening and STI testing, and the Kentucky legislature took time away from COVID-19 planning to debate several bills limiting the ability to access abortion in that state.3
Nor are attacks on reproductive health limited to either the state level or to abortion services. In Congress, anti-choice lawmakers also used the March 25 stimulus bill to hurt Planned Parenthood by giving the Small Business Administration the ability to deny Planned Parenthood and other nonprofits serving low-income people from receiving benefits under the small business loan program. The bill also added a Hyde Amendment provision, which bans the use of federal funding for abortion care, to a state coronavirus-relief fund.
The push to appease anti-abortion activists through the stimulus bill came straight from the White House. In mid-March, Media Matters for America reported that the White House had provided an “exclusive” to the right-wing Daily Caller, falsely accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of using the stimulus bill as cover to expand abortion funding.5 The misinformation campaign was quickly picked up and repeated by anti-choice groups and outlets including Fox News.
The White House continues to work closely with anti-abortion activists eager to exploit the crisis, including Kristin Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, who tweeted on March 24 about participating in a phone meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and 34 anti-abortion leaders.6
But the bans, frontline health care workers warn, pose a threat to both pregnant people and the greater public health.
One Texas abortion counselor told Rewire News that her clinic had been forced to provide a resource sheet to patients that included options for traveling out of state for abortion care—something that would increase their risk of contracting and possibly spreading the coronavirus.
Patients “shouldn’t have to risk their health to travel for such a simple and safe procedure,” the counselor told Rewire, noting that a lack of health insurance, losing hours at work, and layoffs, combined with abortion bans, are putting pregnant people in “an impossible situation.”7 And considering that the prospect of carrying a pregnancy to term involves far more visits to clinics and hospitals than an abortion, she added, “Abortion is safer than having a baby more now than ever.”
According to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas at Austin, the Texas ban alone could have far-reaching negative consequences. As they noted in a recent research brief:
If Texas abortion facilities are forced to suspend services while the executive order is in effect, many patients who remain in Texas will have to delay care until later in pregnancy, and those who can obtain care out of state will be forced to travel considerably longer distances for services. This would create unnecessary economic hardships and increase the health risks for those who undergo second-trimester procedures or end up continuing an unwanted pregnancy.8
Likewise, in a Washington Post op-ed published last week, Dr. Anna Dermish, Regional Medical Director for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, said that thanks to the ban “there will be Texans forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will. And though pregnancy carries health risks even in ordinary circumstances, COVID-19 presents additional unknowns.” While Dermish qualifies her concern by admitting that not much is currently known about how COVID-19 could affect the health of pregnant people, fetuses, or newborn babies, she adds “from past outbreaks, we know that they (pregnant people) are physiologically more susceptible to respiratory illness.9 Last week, The Cut reported that so much is currently unknown about the risk of COVID infection to both mothers and newborns that women giving birth now are frequently not allowed contact with their newborns for a week or more. The many unknowns cited in the article include whether COVID-19 can be transmitted in utero, whether it’s safe to breastfeed, and the potential long-term effects for fetuses of women who contract the disease early in their pregnancy.10
One pro-choice activist, speaking on background, told PRA that the courts don’t offer much hope for protecting reproductive health care from COVID-19-inspired bans. “The 5th Circuit is extremely conservative, with several Trump-appointees on the bench, and the Supreme Court is now tipped in favor of the anti-choice agenda since Trump appointed Brett Kavanaugh, who has signaled very clearly his hostility toward Roe v. Wade, abortion rights, and precedent,” they said.
Katherine Stewart, whose recent book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism details the influence of Christian Nationalists at all levels of government, isn’t surprised that anti-choice forces have taken advantage of the COVID crisis, saying, “They will use any excuse to push their agenda because they see the entire world through it.” But, she added,
While we should be very concerned about judicial rulings on abortion access, we should also remember that the same judges are often aggressively pursuing judicial strategies that will erode the separation of church and state, undermine workers’ rights, and make life better for plutocratic funders of the Religious Right.
So their abortion positions, while significant and highly damaging, are also serving as a political cover for a far-ranging, right-wing agenda that will ultimately benefit the leaders of the Christian Nationalist movement in ways that go beyond a change in abortion policy.
On Saturday, Texas abortion providers filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. 1
1 Kate Smith, “Ohio abortion clinics ordered to stop procedures due to coronavirus,” CBSNews.com, March 21, 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ohio-abortion-clinics-coronavirus-shut-down-not-essential/.
2 Paige Alexandria, “‘Sadness Beyond Tears’ as COVID-19 Abortion Ban Brings Chaos to Texas Clinics,” Rewire.News, April 2, 2020, https://rewire.news/article/2020/04/02/sadness-beyond-tears-as-covid-19….
3 Natalie Gontcharova, “The Stimulus Package Hurts Abortion Providers, Immigrants & Anyone With Student Debt — But It Helps Corporations,” Refinery29, March 27, 2020, https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/03/9616160/coronavirus-stimulus-package-breakdown-house-vote.
4 Alex Morris, “States Are Using the Cover of COVID-19 to Restrict Abortion and Health Care for Women,” Rolling Stone, March 30, 2020, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/covid-19-abortion-planned-paranthood-975324/.
5 Julie Tulbert, “Right-wing media and abortion opponents hype misinformation about the coronavirus spending bill,” Media Matters for America, March 13, 2020, https://www.mediamatters.org/coronavirus-covid-19/right-wing-media-and-abortion-opponents-hype-misinformation-about-coronavirus.
6 March 24 tweet by Kristan Hawkins, https://twitter.com/KristanHawkins/status/1242462076011937793.
7 Paige Alexandria, “‘Sadness Beyond Tears’ as COVID-19 Abortion Ban Brings Chaos to Texas Clinics,” Rewire.News, April 2, 2020, https://rewire.news/article/2020/04/02/sadness-beyond-tears-as-covid-19-abortion-ban-brings-chaos-to-texas-clinics/.
8 “The Potential Impacts of Texas’ Executive Order on Patients’ Access to Abortion Care,” The Texas Policy Evaluation Project, the University of Texas at Austin, March 31, 2020, http://sites.utexas.edu/txpep/files/2020/03/TxPEP-Research-Brief-Executive-Order-3-31-20.pdf.
9 Amna Dermish, “Texas banned me from providing abortions—using coronavirus as an excuse,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/04/04/texas-abortion-ban-coronavirus/.
10 Irin Carmon, “‘They Separated Me From My Baby’ Hospitals are keeping newborns from their parents over coronavirus fears,” The Cut, April 7, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/04/coronavirus-newborns-hospitals-parents.html
11 Robert Barnes, “Abortion providers ask Supreme Court to intervene after Texas bans procedures citing coronavirus,” The Washington Post, April 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/texas-abortion-ban-c…