Abortion Opponents Cynically Capitalize on the Pandemic

From Ohio to Texas, abortion opponents are not wasting any time in taking political advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last weekend, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost ordered health care facilities in the state to stop providing what he deemed as “non-essential” abortions. His action, unfortunately, is part of a larger national campaign that needs to be exposed for what it is: a cynical political ploy being led by anti-choice advocates who have urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to ban abortions.

In a letter sent to facilities that provide abortions, Attorney General Yost wrote that they were “ordered to immediately stop performing non-essential and elective surgical abortions.” He went on to describe non-essential surgical abortion as “those that can be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of a patient.”

Citing the need to preserve health care resources amid the coronavirus pandemic for the reason to halt abortion procedures, the Attorney General’s office is classifying reproductive health care as “non-essential.” But there is a major flaw in this categorization. Abortion is a time-sensitive procedure — something anti-choice policymakers in Ohio should be aware of, as they are the ones attempting to implement time-sensitive laws around abortion.

In April of last year, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law a bill that prohibited abortion after the detection of a fetal pulse, typically found around six weeks into a pregnancy. The law, making accessing abortion even that much more time-sensitive, made no exception for rape or incest past the six-week mark. A federal judge blocked the law from taking effect over the summer. But that hasn’t stopped anti-choice lawmakers in Ohio from trying to further their agenda in limiting access to abortion as evident by the Attorney General’s order.

Officials in ColoradoMassachusetts, and Washington state have issued similar orders to pause elective surgeries in order to conserve personal protective equipment. These states, however, have clarified that the orders do not apply to family planning services and abortion procedures.

As stated by NARAL, a non-profit that supports legal abortion, “pregnancy and abortion care are time-sensitive and cannot be significantly delayed without profound consequences on patient health and well-being.” Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region said it will comply with the order by stopping “non-essential services” to preserve personal protective equipment, but it will continue providing essential procedures, including surgical abortions.

Ohio is not alone in seizing the opportunity to turn a public health crisis into an attack on reproductive health and rights. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was cheered on by anti-choice activists in his decision to implement a COVID-19 health policy that requires abortion services to cease until late April in the wake of the pandemic. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves claimed the state would take action if “elective” abortions were not postponed. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also seemed to suggest that abortion services are categorized as “non-essential” in a press conference this week. When asked by a reporter if the executive order shutting down elective procedures included abortion, Gov. Hogan responded, “[t]hey’ve got to free up beds for the things that are needed to save people’s lives.”

The freeing up of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients should be based on an actual needs assessment, not on a political agenda. And state politicians aren’t the only ones who are flagrantly exploiting the global pandemic to serve anti-choice goals.

Earlier this month, anti-choice members of Congress and the Trump administration attempted to slip Hyde Amendment language into the House’s emergency coronavirus relief bill. At the core of the relief package were unemployment benefits and free COVID-19 testing to prevent the further spread of the virus. And yet, the global health crisis was turned into an abortion debate by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans, who demanded anti-abortion language be included in the bill.

That effort failed, but it demonstrates just how determined anti-choice forces are to use COVID-19 to push their agenda. This is just the latest tactic use by politicians to make abortion more difficult to obtain in states that have been aggressively attempting to restrict the procedure, as demonstrated in the Population Institute’s recent report card on reproductive health and rights. We are now in a historic public health emergency. It should not be hijacked to satisfy a political, anti-choice constituency.

This op-ed by Population Institute Director of Research Bridget Kelly originally ran on March 28, 2020 in The Hill