Updated April 15, 2020 

How has COVID-19 created a new opportunity for anti-abortion extremists?  

Anti-abortion extremists are using the COVID-19 pandemic to threaten abortion access across the nation. As non-essential services are suspended indefinitely to reduce the spread of the virus, governors in Texas, Alabama, Ohio, Oklahoma and others are using this situation to restrict abortion access. Under the guise of “flattening the curve,” these politicians are violating Roe v. Wade and placing undue burdens on abortion access.  

These bans rely on the assumption that abortion is “elective” and “non-essential” medical care – which it is not. Abortion care is time-sensitive and essential, and lack of access to the procedure can have lifetime physical and emotional impacts on the women seeking abortions. Medical experts agree as well — The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Board of Obstetrics & Gynecology Abortion confirm that abortion is an essential and time-sensitive medical procedure. 

By the end of March, over 50 anti-abortion groups had written to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and other public officials to tell abortion providers to cease and desist operations during this crisis. States are capitalizing on the public’s fear to push their anti-abortion ideologies. These are politicians who are known for their anti-abortion stances, and who are taking the arguments against abortion access and really leaning into them during this crisis. These bans are part of a long pattern of politicians prioritizing radical ideology over science-based policy making.  

Why are these abortion bans especially harmful?  

Clinics already see huge amounts of violence and harassment on a regular basis, but now crowds gathering around clinics to protest are disregarding social distancing guidelines and threatening patients with the spread of Coronavirus by spitting or coughing on them. Instead of implementing bubble zones to protect abortion providers and patients from this harassment, it goes unchecked.  

New Guttmacher Institute analysis for states that are potentially affected reveals one dramatic impact of these actions: If allowed to stand, they would force people to travel much further to reach the nearest abortion clinic. This creates a significant new barrier to obtaining care, further compounding the web of other barriers and restrictions those seeking an abortion already have to navigate. Extended travel, or any travel, during the COVID-19 crisis flies in the face of basic public health recommendations and, in some cases, legal orders. 

Women in Texas and states with similar closures may now have to cross state lines in order to access abortions. Due to onerous regulations previously enacted by many of these states, abortions also often require multiple trips to a doctor (even for medication abortion), so women have to travel far, multiple times, to access this critical care. Limits to abortion access already disproportionately impact low-income women and women of color, and these bans place huge burdens on these women, many of whom are out of work, may have to take off work as essential personnel, find childcare, etc.  

In addition, the above challenges are all exacerbated by unprecedented financial constraints, school closures and limited child-care options. For some populations, like young people or those who experience violence in their home, extended travel may be impossible now that family members and housemates are at home full time.  

Are these bans being challenged?  

These bans are unconstitutional and so lawsuits – like the one against the state of Texas by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America — are challenging them on that basis. State’s shouldn’t be allowed to end abortion for good, disregarding Roe v. Wade, under the guise of COVID19 spread reduction. Cases in Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Ohio and Alabama have been filed during the pandemic. They are against a backdrop of many other cases trying to fight the use of unscientific reasoning to block abortion care.  

These lawsuits have resulted in temporary restraining orders in Alabama and Ohio so that abortion clinics can remain open for the time being. Texas had the same temporary restraining order but the case went up to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and they put a stay on the case. Now clinics in Texas cannot open or run during this time, preventing women in the area from accessing this essential and time sensitive medical care. 

Health centers have been flooded with calls from people who are unsure if their appointments are cancelled. We are already hearing reports of women having to drive hundreds of miles to access care after their appointments were canceled. Now is the time to be making abortion more accessible, not less. 

What about Telehealth and Medication Abortion? 

Medication abortion provides a low-contact alternative to traditional (?) abortion procedures for patients with pregnancies under ten weeks. Telehealth ensures that women seeking medication abortions are able to access check-ups and necessary care without endangering themselves by traveling to a physical clinic. Unfortunately, COVID-19 abortion bans have also targeted telehealth and medication abortion, arguing that they are non-essential services, even though they would follow social distancing guidelines and reduce the number of women in clinics. This is another indicator that these abortion bans are simply capitalizing on the pandemic to restrict access to any kind of abortion care.  

Medication abortion still requires pre-screening and check-ups like a traditional abortion, but these can all be conducted over the phone or through other telehealth methods. Instead of restricting access to telehealth, this pandemic could be an opportunity for clinics to implement effective alternatives to surgical abortion that can make the procedure more accessible for women.  

What resources are there for women in states with abortion bans? 

Abortion Funds has a list of abortion clinics and funds that can be donated to, to make abortion more affordable for women. Some of these funds, such as the Clinic Access Support Network in Houston, TX, can also help with transportation and overnight housing for those from out of town. In Texas, where abortions are temporarily halted after the Fifth Circuit Court ruling, some providers are referring women to clinics in New Mexico or Kansas, where abortions are still allowed. Without access to abortion, women are also facing mental health challenges, or attempting dangerous home treatment for abortion.  

Reproductive Health Resources