How the Coronavirus Outbreak Is Making the Fight for Abortion Access That Much Harder

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Healthcare facilities across the country are struggling to help the influx of patients affected by the novel coronavirus. A hospital in New York has brought in refrigerated trucks to use as a morgue; Louisiana hospitals are quickly running out of beds.

In order to ease the burden and conserve resources, nonessential and elective surgeries are on hold across the country. According to CNN, at least 25 states have implemented the federal recommendation to delay elective surgical procedures.

Anti-choice activists and politicians in different states are now using this recommendation as a way to stop people from accessing abortion, by labeling the procedure as "nonessential." This comes even after the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Board of Obstetrics & Gynecology released a statement on March 18th naming abortion “an essential component of comprehensive health care.” They write, “It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible.” For example, in Ohio, where most abortions are banned after 20 weeks, a delay could make a legal abortion nearly impossible.

But the restrictions are also coming from the federal level. VICE News reports that the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that recently passed in the Senate includes provisions that make it “much more difficult, if not outright impossible, for Planned Parenthood to access new multi-billion dollar funds aimed at stabilizing the U.S. economy in the midst of the historic downturn.”

During this pandemic, it's already difficult for people to access reproductive health services; millions have lost their job and source of income, not to mention health insurance. The ever-evolving news can also make it difficult to track how your state is handling access during the outbreak. Below, a look into the states that have moved recently to restrict access so far.

Ohio

Shortly after health authorities in Ohio issued an order to stop nonessential surgeries, the state’s attorney general told abortion clinics in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Cleveland to “immediately stop performing nonessential and elective surgical abortions,” according to the New York Times.

The presidents and CEOs of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio and Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region, Iris E. Harvey and Kersha Deibel, responded in a statement: "We are complying with the Ohio Department of Health’s order regarding personal protective equipment, which requires hospitals and surgical facilities to stop providing nonessential surgeries and procedures and take other steps to reduce the use of equipment in short supply…Under that order, Planned Parenthood can still continue providing essential procedures, including surgical abortion, and our health centers continue to offer other health care services that our patients depend on. Our doors remain open for this care."

Kellie Copeland, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, also emphasized the necessity of continuing to provide during this time, saying,"The reasons that people make a decision to end a pregnancy include the impact on their health, ability to work, strained economic circumstances. All of these things are heightened during a pandemic. Denying or delaying a patient's access to abortion care puts an incredible burden on these people and their families."

On Monday, abortion rights advocates filed a lawsuit in Ohio.

Texas

An executive order from Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott stated that healthcare facilities must postpone surgeries and procedures that are not immediately medically necessary. Texas’s Attorney General Ken Paxton then confirmed that included “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” The order is set to expire April 21, according to the Texas Tribune, and providers can be fined up to $1,000 or face up to 180 days in jail for violating the order.

After the executive order, the president and CEOs from Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, and Planned Parenthood South Texas released a statement: "A delay of 30 days, or even less, can make abortion completely inaccessible. We are carefully reviewing Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Executive Order (No. GA-09) issued March 22, 2020 to ensure compliance. Along with other health care providers, Planned Parenthood health centers are conserving needed health care resources and committed to protecting the health and safety of our patients and staff."

After several Texas abortion providers sued Abbott and other state officials, a federal district judge granted providers a temporary restraining order, meaning abortion services can continue for the time being. The temporary order lasts until April 13th.

Mississippi

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said the single abortion clinic in the state should be following state health department's guidelines and temporarily pausing elective surgeries, according to U.S. News and World Report. Reeves said, “It is without question that the lone clinic in Jackson does, in fact, operate doing procedures that are elective and not required,” before explaining he would “be prepared to try to take additional action” if the clinic did not stop.

Louisiana

The Times reports that after Louisiana issued an order to delay nonessential medical procedures, an anti-abortion group in the state released a statement saying Hope Medical Group, one of Louisiana’s only providers, was closed. However, the president of Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents Hope Medical, has denied it.

Maryland

Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan briefly appeared to be considering abortion clinics nonessential. After he issued a “stay-at-home” order for the state, he responded to a reporter’s question about abortion by saying, “We included in our directive an order to limit all elective surgeries…because we need to free up beds for the things that are going to save people’s lives.” However, according to Politico, Hogan’s office clarified that abortion providers could remain open.

Tennessee

According to U.S. News & World Report, a spokesperson for Tennessee's Governor Bill Lee said the governor hopes no "elective" abortions will be performed in the state due to the executive order that bans nonessential medical procedures. The spokesperson said in a statement: "Gov. Lee believes elective abortions aren’t essential procedures and given the state of PPE in Tennessee and across the country, his hope and expectation would be that those procedures not take place during this crisis."

Iowa

Iowa's Governor Kim Reynolds confirmed on Friday that the state's order to suspend nonessential medical procedures includes surgical abortions. A spokesperson for Reynolds told the Des Moines Register: "Proclamation suspends all nonessential or elective surgeries and procedures until April 16th, that includes surgical abortion procedures." On Monday, the ACLU of Iowa and Planned Parenthood Federation of America responded by filing a lawsuit against Reynolds and state officials.

Oklahoma

On Friday, Oklahoma's Governor Kevin Stitt confirmed that abortions are included in the state's executive order that postpones all elective medical procedures until April 7th. The Oklahoman reports that the governor's office said the only exceptions were abortions deemed a medical emergency or "necessary to prevent serious health risks to the unborn child's mother." Abortion rights advocates have since filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma.

Kentucky

Kentucky's Attorney General Daniel Cameron has said Governor Andy Beshear should temporarily ban abortion as part of the state's executive order to postpone elective surgeries. However, the day before Cameron's statement, Beshear told reporters he was going to "leave it to our health professionals to determine what falls into elective and the essential."

Alabama

The Hill reports that while Alabama has suspended elective surgeries, abortion providers have not gotten clarification on whether that includes surgical abortions. However, doctors performing "nonessential" procedures could be subject to criminal penalties, leading abortion rights advocates to file a lawsuit in the state.

This post will continue to be updated.

Madison Feller Madison is a staff writer at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture.

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