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Coronavirus pandemic presents additional hurdles for abortion access

Conservative states argue the procedure should not be considered "essential" amid public health crisis

Conservative states are restricting access to abortion as a nonessential service during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving women in some places without options, but some advocacy groups are pushing back.

States such as Ohio, Texas and Louisiana all took action to limit the ability of women to seek abortion care during the coronavirus public health emergency. More broadly, several states have either recommended, required or limited closure of nonessential businesses, and the services that are considered essential vary by state.

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Even as women seeking abortions in some states suddenly find abortion clinics closed, liberal states are ensuring that abortions can occur while hospitals postpone elective surgeries because of COVID-19 concerns.

Anti-abortion advocates argue that abortion is nonessential and diverts the use of personal protective equipment during a national shortage.

“Legitimate health care providers desperately need the medical resources Planned Parenthood and others would divert to their abortion business,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. “We urge abortion centers to put their profit interest aside for a change, obey lawful directives like those issued by Texas and Ohio stopping risky and unnecessary procedures, and do their part to stop the spread of coronavirus.”

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A trio of abortion rights advocacy organizations disagree and filed suit against one state’s policy late Wednesday. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Lawyering Project are challenging restrictions instituted in Texas earlier this week.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said Monday that Texas’ prohibition on non-medically necessary procedures would include “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother,” which liberal groups argue places an undue burden on women seeking reproductive care.

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a call with reporters that the lawsuit argues that Paxton singled out abortion providers. The suit says blocking abortion access violates the governor’s executive order because these abortions should be considered medically necessary.

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“It’s important to know that other states that are also battling the virus — Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Jersey and Minnesota — are using evidence-based policy and are specific in their emergency orders that abortion services are among the essential health care that may continue,” said Northup.

As abortion providers in Texas cancel upcoming appointments, the groups filing the lawsuit are seeking a temporary restraining order and eventually a permanent injunction against this policy.

Under normal circumstances, Texas women are required to schedule two appointments, 24 hours apart, to have an abortion, and the state bans the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy, making waiting for a court verdict unworkable for some women.

“Patients who need an abortion are on a time-sensitive deadline, and this is an undeniable fact,” said Sealy Massingill, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

Closed clinics

In the interim, some abortion providers have been working with patients to travel to other states by tapping funds collected by nonprofits. But that process has its own set of challenges.

“Unfortunately, the Midwest and the South in the United States has a real disproportionate impact from regulations, and also in this pandemic, travel is very scary and is a huge impact for people to undertake,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance.

She said there are some options for Texas women in neighboring states like New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arkansas, but other nearby states — like Louisiana — are in a similar situation.

Louisiana shut down its three abortion clinics this week, after the state posted a notice banning nonessential medical and surgical procedures. The state bans abortion after 22 weeks’ gestation.

Ohio’s situation is similar to that of Texas.

Planned Parenthood has been at odds since last week with Ohio’s attorney general, Republican Dave Yost, over whether surgical abortion is an “essential” medical service and whether abortion providers would be using protective equipment needed elsewhere in the state.

Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves pledged in a news conference on Tuesday to take action on abortions in his state.

“We are doing everything in our power and we have for many years to make Mississippi the safest state in America for unborn children,” he said. “It is without question that if the lone clinic in Jackson does, in fact, operate doing procedures that are elective and not required, and therefore they should be following the guidelines as offered by the state Department of Health, and if they are not, I would be prepared to take additional action.”

Students for Life of America has been calling on students to contact their governors with requests to restrict abortion providers and preserve protective equipment.

“Leaders in Texas and other states have called for abortion vendors to cease operations so that life-saving equipment can be used to address the coronavirus crisis. But as the rest of the country fights to save lives, Planned Parenthood runs to court to end lives,” said Kristan Hawkins, SFLA’s president.

Progressive action

Democratic-leaning states are taking a different approach to reproductive care during the COVID-19 health emergency.

Illinois’ stay-at-home order announced last week includes “reproductive health care providers” under essential businesses and operations.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, similarly said abortion access would not be blocked in the state.

“To be clear, the coronavirus is not an excuse for federal, state, or local governments to curtail women’s reproductive freedoms or limit their choices. Any woman who wants to go into a doctor’s office or into a clinic today and get an abortion should continue to be able to do so,” she said. “And for those who do not feel comfortable leaving their homes as we battle COVID-19, we are fighting to maintain women’s access to abortion and the abortion pill so that their reproductive choices are not limited.”

New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy also created a carve-out for abortion providers in his executive order released Monday that bans elective surgeries to preserve equipment for those on the frontlines.

“Nothing in this Order shall be construed to limit access to the full range of family planning services and procedures, including terminations of pregnancies, whether in a hospital, ambulatory surgery center, physician office, or other location,” the order reads. 

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