Abortion Under Threat: What You Need to Know

While many of us are at home, anti-choice politicians and their supporters are exploiting the anxiety around COVID-19 by attacking access to abortion rights. (Here’s a great graphic from NARAL Iowa depicting the intersection between the politicians who tried to ban abortion in 2019 and those trying to do so now.) 

What could the argument be for banning abortion, a time-sensitive medical procedure, during a pandemic? It’s based in abortion stigma, negative or wrong ideas about abortion that are perpetuated by media and anti-choice sources. Officials claim that abortion is a non-essential procedure that requires the use of Personal Protective Equipment, such as masks, face shields, and gloves, which health care professionals need to avoid contacting COVID-19 while treating infected patients. The majority of abortions are outpatient procedures that rarely require hospitalization. These bans perpetuate the idea that abortion is not only dangerous, but somehow optional,when in fact, a person seeking an abortion cannot simply wait until COVID-19 decides to loosen its grip on public health. That’s not how pregnancy works, and, thanks to the abortion restrictions that also happen to exist in the states with these bans, obtaining an abortion once the lockdown ends will be virtually impossible. 

Here’s what to know about the state of abortion access as of this moment: 

Texas has been in the news a lot lately, and it began when Governor Greg Abbott banned all abortions in the state on March 22d, deeming them not medically necessary.  On March 31st, the ban was held up by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (the same court behind the case that’s currently in front of SCOTUS, June Medical v. Russo). Then, on April 14, the Fifth Circuit ruled that, since medical abortions (abortions performed via abortion pills)  don’t require a hospital stay or any protective gear, they could proceed. On Monday, April 20th the U.S. Appeals Court allowed Texas to uphold a ban against medical abortion as well. As of April 22nd, Texas’s abortion ban has been lifted. 

Oklahoma was one of several states issuing orders banning elective surgeries in late March. Governor Kevin Stitt made it clear that the order included abortions, unless they were “necessary to prevent serious health risks to the unborn child’s mother.” In response, District Judge Charles Goodwin granted a temporary restraining order, arguing that banning abortion care in the state would harm those seeking it. The order was upheld by the 10th District Court, allowing abortion to continue in the state.

Instead of outright stating that clinics had to stop providing abortion care as part of a ban on non essential surgeries during COVID-19, Alabama refused to clarify if they could continue to operate, leaving providers and those seeking abortion in terrifying limbo. On April 12th, a  federal judge ruled that Alabama could not stop clinics for providing abortion care.

While Arkansas officials also tried to ban abortion, the effort was blocked by a  federal judge.

In Ohio, where a federal appeals court ruled that abortion could not be banned as part of measures taken to prevent and treat COVID-19, it remains contentious, since another ruling may be issued.  And in Alaska, things are not looking good for those seeking surgical abortion: on April 7th, Governor Michael Dunleavy postponed the procedure through June 15th, declaring them “non-urgent,” unless the health of the mother is endangered. 

It’s important to remember that even in states where abortion is not being threatened with bans, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to obtain. Restrictions on abortion, including requiring parents of minors to sign off on the procedure and waiting periods up to 72 hours, as well as the fact that states such as Missisissippi, which have one clinic, make abortion care impossible to get for many who seek it, particularly people of color. The effort to ban abortion in a pandemic only exacerbates the reality of the dismal landscape.