The Trump administration and its political allies may be letting up on COVID-19 restrictions, but it’s still full speed ahead when it comes to their attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights. They’re using every means at their disposal — legislative, regulatory, budgetary — to curb access to reproductive health services.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments that could make it easier under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for employers with moral or religious objections to opt out of providing free birth control coverage in their insurance plans.
Meanwhile, the president is seeking to overturn the ACA in the Supreme Court, along with its contraceptive coverage. Attorney General William Barr reportedly advised him to modify his position to preserve parts of the law, but Trump refused to budge, even though it threatens tens of millions of Americans with losing their insurance coverage in the middle of a pandemic.
While it’s doubtful whether the Trump administration will succeed in overturning the entire ACA, there is no doubt of its success in stacking the federal courts with conservative judges. The President’s chief ally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is delivering on his pledge to “leave no vacancy behind.” The result is lasting change to the judiciary that could imperil access to reproductive health care services for a generation or more.
The Senate rushed back into session this week, not to deal with COVID-19, but to hold hearings on Trump’s controversial nomination of Justin Walker to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Walker is a 37-year-old McConnell protégé the American Bar Association rated “not qualified” for the job. He also enthusiastically predicts “an end to almost all judicial [decisions allowing abortion].”
Even before Walker’s nomination, the Trump administration had laid the groundwork for the restriction of abortion rights and, quite feasibly, the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Earlier this term, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in June Medical Services LLC v. Russo, which could have major implications for abortion access. Depending on what the Court decides, state legislatures could enact arbitrary abortion restrictions that would effectively prevent abortion clinics from operating in that state.
In addition to the judiciary, the Trump administration is also leveraging its executive agencies. For example, it sought to defund the Department of Health and Human Services’(HHS) Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, an evidence-based program that funds organizations working to prevent teen pregnancy across the U.S. In its place, the administration promotes an unscientific, ineffective abstinence-until-marriage-only agenda.
It also undermined HHS’s Title X program, a decades-old program that supports clinics delivering family planning services to 4 million low-income households annually. It imposed a new regulation, widely known as the domestic gag rule, prohibiting Title X clinics from offering patients unbiased, factual information about their reproductive health choices: mention abortion and you lose your funding. As a result, trusted family planning providers including Planned Parenthood had no choice but to leave the program.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Department of Education is making U.S. college campuses less safe with regard to sexual assault and harassment. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently released a Title IX directive granting new rights to the accused while dramatically narrowing the definition of harassment.
Like his domestic policy, Trump’s foreign policy is stridently anti-abortion, even at the expense of public health. He re-imposed and expanded the so-called “Global Gag Rule,” an executive order that prohibits overseas organizations receiving U.S. foreign assistance from suggesting or referring patients to abortion services. This jeopardizes access to health care for millions in the developing world and particularly endangers the lives of women and girls.
Trump also suspended U.S. support for UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), the leading multilateral organization addressing the sexual and reproductive health needs of women in developing countries, and repeatedly sought to roll back the U.N.’s long-standing commitment to reproductive health and rights.
The stakes are high as the assaults are vast and unrelenting across so many fronts; it’s hard even for reproductive rights advocates to keep up with it all. A new report, “Obsessed: The Trump/Pence administration’s assault on sexual and reproductive health and rights,” assembles the details and exposes an administration bent on defying public opinion, rejecting evidence-based findings, trampling on constitutional protections, and disregarding the health and welfare of millions in the U.S. and abroad.
COVID-19 has decimated contraceptive manufacturing and will disrupt supplies of condoms and other contraceptive methods. Upwards of 47 million women worldwide may lose access to contraception, causing unintended pregnancies to skyrocket.
The Trump administration’s focus should be on an appropriate response to the pandemic. Yet as it continues, even now, to focus on undermining reproductive health, it’s courting a double public health crisis. More than 4.5 million people around the world have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The number of women at risk for unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and maternal mortality could be even higher.
This op-ed by Population Institute Director of Research Bridget Kelly originally ran on May 16, 2020 in The Hill