In response to the growing coronavirus crisis, states are stopping “nonessential” surgeries to ease the burden on hospitals and medical workers. While this is admirable in theory, conservatives at both the state and federal levels have capitalized on these legitimate efforts to protect our collective well-being by misclassifying critical care as “nonessential” and restricting the freedom of women. Federal judges in three states have blocked orders that limited abortion access, including one in Texas, which had gone so far as to halt nearly all abortions to “comply with the state’s temporary suspension of surgeries that are not deemed ‘medically necessary.’” Yesterday, a federal appeals court reinstated Texas’s ban on abortions.
As the pro-choice group Fund Texas Choice wrote in an email to its supporters recently, “Abortion needs rise in the face of crisis, and unfortunately they do not pause as we figure out how to react as a society.” Access to comprehensive, quality, and affordable reproductive health care is always an imperative, and it is especially so during a global pandemic that threatens the health, economic security, and lives of millions.
Financial insecurity is one reason that women in the US seek abortion, and this dynamic is only going to be heightened in the fallout of this crisis. Those laid off from the workforce are unsure if there will be jobs to return to, and those who will soon be graduating from college may experience a generational crisis similar to that of folks who graduated during the 2008 economic recession. Many are watching the president’s continued attacks on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and are wondering if there will be health coverage for them in the future.
Reproductive health and economic security are always two sides of the same coin, and this is particularly true in times of crisis. And we are in a crisis of epic proportions. The latest data show that 10 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last two weeks alone; Fed analysts estimate that we could reach an unemployment rate of 32 percent. Women will be disproportionately impacted by this new reality. More than two-thirds of low-wage workers with children have experienced reductions in hours or are now temporarily or permanently unemployed. Let’s not forget that women are more than 60 percent of minimum-wage and low-wage workers in the US, and they already face a wage gap that sees them making 82 percent of what their male colleagues make (a number that is a lot less for women of color). They also experience a significant wealth gap that leaves them with far fewer assets to rely on in times of crisis. Single Black women have a median wealth of $200 and single Hispanic women $100, compared to approximately $15,000 for white women and almost $29,000 for white men.
Even without the latest set of antichoice attacks, abortion access will be threatened in the coming weeks and months. The current restrictions on geographic mobility to combat the spread of COVID-19 will make it harder for women to travel to reach clinics, and also for providers to reach their patients. Nearly 90 percent of US counties already lack an abortion provider, and many women must travel beyond their state of residence to access abortion care. Between 2012 and 2017, 276,000 women had abortions outside of their home state, as many clinics do not have local physicians to provide abortion care and must rely on physicians from other states.
Aimee Arrambide, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, commented on the strain that the current public health crisis is adding to an already hostile reproductive health environment in her state: “Abortion is a procedure where time is of the essence and cannot be delayed without profound consequences. State leaders should ensure that Texans who need care can access it with the least amount of obstacles and medically unnecessary visits possible.”
Conservative maneuvering on abortion access is especially frustrating to young progressive women. “By capitalizing on this moment of economic vulnerability and overwhelming uncertainty to curtail access to safe abortion care, our representatives have prioritized circumventing public health guidelines to advance their own misguided political agendas over providing time-sensitive, medically necessary health care to their constituents,” said Snipta Mallick, a student at the University of Texas, Dallas, and the Roosevelt Network’s health care policy coordinator.
The escalated conservative attacks on reproductive justice—and the innumerable threats posed by COVID—are unfolding against a backdrop of persistent health and economic insecurity as well as severely restricted access to abortion services.
Over the last decade, hundreds of antichoice laws have been implemented at the state level, more than 100 clinics have been forced to close, and many states today are on the brink of losing their only provider. The Supreme Court recently heard June Medical Services v. Gee, a case that conservatives hope will significantly undermine reproductive rights; more than 200 Republican members of Congress submitted a brief to the Supreme Court urging them to use this case to overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Much of what lies in the weeks and months ahead is uncertain, but one thing is for sure: Now, more than ever, women need better, fundamental access to reproductive health care. This means that pregnant women need access to safe, affordable, and quality health care to ensure the health of their pregnancies. It means that women should be able to access the birth control of their choice. And it means that women who want to terminate their pregnancies must have the ability to do so. Restricting abortion access during a global pandemic makes this moment seem more like a Margaret Atwood novel than it already does. Now is the time to expand, not contract, access to comprehensive reproductive health care.