Anti-Abortion Groups Are Making COVID-19 an Even Greater Public Health Threat

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Commentary Abortion

Anti-Abortion Groups Are Making COVID-19 an Even Greater Public Health Threat

Dr. Herminia Palacio

Exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to chip away at reproductive health and rights will disproportionately harm those who are least well off precisely when people most need protection.

For continuing coverage of how COVID-19 is affecting reproductive health, check out our Special Report.  

Those of us advancing scientific research and facts to protect the right to access essential health services, including abortion and other reproductive health care, have a lot of work ahead. COVID-19 is creating new barriers to access, and posing urgent challenges—both those caused by the virus itself, and the anti-abortion movement’s clear steps to exploit the crisis to advance its ideological agenda.

Around 70,000 people seek abortion care in the United States every month. This number is based off our national abortion data for 2017, and so it doesn’t even begin to reflect how people’s decision-making around abortion and pregnancy will be impacted by COVID-19. Yet, instead of meeting people’s reproductive health needs, opportunistic policymakers are seizing the moment to restrict or outright ban abortion care. 

While it will take time to collect and rigorously analyze evidence to understand the full implications of this crisis on gender rights, as well as sexual and reproductive health and rights (including its impact on intimate partner violence, maternal health and mortality, access to abortion and contraception, and reproductive decisions and autonomy), it is clear the situation is not looking good for anyone in need of essential reproductive health care.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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Most concerning, the severity, confusion, and length of this crisis is providing a thick smoke screen for the advancement of anti-reproductive rights policies. Anti-abortion politicians and activists are shamelessly exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to push ideological agendas and further enshrine discrimination and inequity in our health care system.

The ongoing string of events is cause for alarm:

  • As soon as Congress began working on an initial relief package, anti-abortion policymakers moved to insert unrelated abortion restrictions into the bill. These provisions serve no purpose other than to try to stigmatize abortion. The same dynamic has played out in the massive stimulus bill that followed.
  • Shortly after, some states that have long been hostile to abortion rights started creating new barriers to those seeking time-sensitive, essential abortion care. Chief among them is Texas: Rather than focus on the crisis at hand, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) decided to pick a political fight by falsely claiming that providing abortion care would divert medical equipment from the COVID-19 response and using that to force abortion clinics to close, no matter the harm done to patients who need that care.
  • And not to be outdone, a national coalition of anti-abortion advocates is lobbying the federal government to shut down abortion provision amid the outbreak—such as urging abortion providers to cease operations and maintaining restrictions on medication abortion and telemedicine abortion, despite the heightened urgency of these services. In doing so, they are peddling misleading concerns about diverting medical supplies and resources from the COVID-19 response.

Anyone who believes in facts and evidence-based public health will witness the absurdity and cynicism of these arguments with alarm because all pregnancy-related health care—whether it’s ensuring healthy pregnancies and safe births, preventing pregnancies, or ending pregnancies—is by its very nature time-sensitive and essential care. 

Cynical anti-abortion tactics are nothing new. In recent years, we have witnessed a renewed, systematic, and coordinated effort by anti-abortion advocates to dismantle abortion access and otherwise undermine reproductive health and rights. These ideologues have found strong allies in the White House, many state governments, and an increasingly conservative judiciary. There is now a very real possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court could roll back long-established rights.

These attacks on abortion are part of a broader regressive agenda. For example, conservatives have continued their never-ending attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely, and with it its huge expansion in insurance coverage and robust protections for everything from preexisting conditions to maternity care.

The Trump administration has also given states the green light to convert their Medicaid programs into block grants, a thinly disguised ploy to dramatically reduce the number of people insured through this vital program. Medicaid is the main source of coverage for family planning, pregnancy-related care, and other reproductive health care for millions of Americans.

The administration also slashed by half the capacity of the Title X family planning program, which supports affordable birth control and other care for those most in need. And it imposed the overtly xenophobic “public charge” rule, restricting many immigrants’ access to Medicaid and other important programs.

These ceaseless attacks are especially harmful and poignant during the COVID-19 crisis, as they all add up to leaving our nation less prepared to weather this pandemic. Moreover, public health crises amplify preexisting inequities, and women, people with low incomes, people of color, LBGTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and immigrants are often the most affected.

Exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to chip away at reproductive health and rights will disproportionately harm the people who are least well off and prove injurious precisely at a time when people most need protection.

Our leaders at the national and state levels must focus on addressing the crisis—and that also means immediately stopping efforts to undermine reproductive health, rights, and justice.

Dr. Herminia Palacio is president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization working to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally.