Yesterday, in New York City, one person died every four minutes from the coronavirus that has now killed more Americans than the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As of Wednesday, there have been more than 190,000 confirmed cases in the United States, and health officials estimate as many as 200,000 people could perish. A reported 265 million Americans in 30 states have been ordered to shelter-in-place, school is closed for 30 million children, as many as 47 million Americans could lose their jobs, and the apex of infection is nowhere in sight.
And instead of focusing on the personal protection equipment and ventilation shortages devastating our nation’s health care workers, or expanding states’ COVID-19 testing abilities, some in the “pro-life” party of “family values” are using the crisis to limit access to abortion. Because what better time is there to force pregnant people to give birth than during an unprecedented public health emergency.
GOP governors and attorneys general in Texas, Ohio, Mississippi, Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Alabama are all calling for abortion services to be stopped — erroneously labeling the time-sensitive procedure as medically unnecessary. And yet, studies have shown that people who are denied access to abortion care are more likely to face financial hardship, more likely to endure pregnancy complications and more likely to experience depression and other mental health issues. And that’s before getting into the even more acute consequences of abortion in cases of rape or incest.
These bans, Republicans argue, will also free up personal protective equipment for health care workers on the front lines of this crisis and keep desperately needed hospital beds available. Such bad-faith arguments are similarly not true, as Dr. Dan Grossman, the director of a reproductive health research group at the University of California, San Francisco, made clear on Twitter.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton claims that banning abortion will free up hospital beds, but Grossman notes that few abortions occur in hospitals (in 2017, only 87 of the 52,103 abortions performed in the state of Texas occurred in a hospital) and abortion complications are extremely rare. Paxton also claimed that limiting abortion care would save personal protective equipment for emergency care workers, but, as Grossman pointed out, only two pairs of gloves and a reusable face mask are used for surgical abortions, and masks and gowns are normally not required.
Not surprisingly, these unconstitutional attempts to prevent abortion, shamelessly wrapped in a faux concern for health care providers, have prompted a slew of legal battles. Federal judges temporarily blocked the bans in Texas, Ohio, and Alabama on March 30. Less than 24 hours later, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary stay on the ruling in Texas, immediately allowing the abortion ban to go back into effect. Lawsuits have also been filed in Iowa and Oklahoma.
But even a temporary ban is devastating for pregnant people seeking abortion care, especially in states where that care is already impeded. Barriers to care are in addition to gestational age limits; pregnant people seeking care aren’t just battling medically unnecessary abortion restrictions — they’re battling time.
That Republican lawmakers are using the devastation of a global pandemic to attack access to abortion is far from surprising — you only need look as far as their blatant disregard for this country’s rising maternal mortality rate, their disdain for mandatory paid family leave or affordable child care, and their willingness to separate as many as 54,000 immigrant children from their caregivers at the border. Hypocrisy has long been a synonym for the anti-abortion movement.
But their efforts in this moment feel particularly inhumane. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, wrote an op-ed in USA Today calling for President Donald Trump to “re-open the country” because “death is an unavoidable part of life,” likening COVID-19 to last year’s “exceptionally bad flu.” When Johnson voted in favor of two anti-abortion bills — the Pain Capable Unborn Act and Born-Alive Survivors Protection Act — he sent out a statement that said, in part, “we have an obligation to protect life.” (Just not when it threatens the economy or this president’s re-election chances, apparently.)
Anti-abortion laws have closed clinics nationwide, left 89 percent of counties without an abortion provider, and have banned tax dollars from funding abortion — all of which disproportionally affects black people, poor people, people living in rural areas and the LGBTQ community, people who also stand to be the most harmed by the financial ramifications of the coronavirus.
Those in positions of power could relax anti-abortion laws that would allow for federal funding assistance, more time for patients to seek the services they need, and telemedicine abortion — this would make medication abortion (which is 95 percent effective) accessible for people via telehealth services and without an unnecessary, in-person trip to a clinic. Instead, they have chosen to pretend abortion is somehow both frivolous and yet also potentially dangerous to others.
As this crisis continues to evolve, the party of “family values” has, once again, shown itself to be the party of political self-interest. The president of the United States downplayed a looming disaster because it was convenient; now his campaign is worried about deaths in red states and he’s demanding public loyalty in exchange for federal coronavirus aid. It shouldn’t surprise us that Republican leaders are piggybacking on a crisis to further their partisan and unconstitutional agendas. But it should infuriate us.