Covid-19 measures have effectively banned abortion in some states
Virginia, Washington, Illinois and New York have explicitly protected family planning services from being canceled as elective. But a growing number of states — Ohio, Texas, Mississippi and, most recently, Kentucky — have used this pandemic to halt abortions in their states, except when the woman’s life is in immediate danger without one.
For instance, Ohio’s Department of Health writes that “nonessential surgical abortions are those that can be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of the patient,” and instructed the state’s abortion clinics to halt abortions. However, abortion’s health risks are lowest in a pregnancy’s first trimester, when approximately 90 percent are performed; abortion costs are higher as the pregnancy continues; and legal abortion is safer than childbirth. What’s more, if coronavirus isn’t contained soon, for many women any delay getting an abortion is likely, in reality, to be a ban.
Governors and other officials are declaring abortions to be “nonessential” medical procedures, an antiabortion goal
With the covid-19 pandemic straining health-care resources, antiabortion groups are working to redefine abortion as nonessential, which is one of their longtime goals.
Since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade struck down laws against abortion, the antiabortion strategy has been to pass state laws limiting abortion access and to fight for those laws in the federal courts, as political scientist Josh Wilson explored. For example, the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey enabled states to impose their own constraints on abortion access.
Since then, some states have worked to codify Roe v. Wade, while others, such as Texas and Alabama, enact Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (“TRAP”) laws that effectively close abortion clinics by imposing stringent requirements about such issues as corridor width and whether physicians have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The Guttmacher Institute reported that Louisiana alone has enacted 89 abortion restrictions since Roe, with many other states passing dozens as well. However, as political scientist Marshall Medoff found, TRAP laws don’t reduce women’s pursuit of abortion services.
Antiabortion policies are more likely to be adopted in states with a more strongly antiabortion electorate. But as political scientist Susan Roberts explored here at TMC last year, the antiabortion interest group Americans United for Life (AUL) has been behind the spread of particular measures; in 2014, AUL consulted on antiabortion measures in 32 states. These measures have collectively sought to make abortion “legal but inaccessible.” AUL has praised Ohio’s and Texas’s efforts to shut down abortions during the pandemic, though on March 30, a federal judge temporarily blocked Texas from halting abortions as part of the state’s pandemic response.
The cost of unwanted pregnancies may be higher during the pandemic
With businesses shuttered, the economy rapidly contracting and a record number of nearly 3.3 million jobless claims reported this month, women who are not financially prepared to have a child may face particular financial hardship as their medical costs increase during pregnancy. Further, compared to women with planned pregnancies, those with mistimed or unwanted pregnancies are less likely to receive early prenatal care, and unwanted pregnancies are more likely to result in preterm birth or low birth weight; women with unwanted pregnancies are more likely to smoke and less likely to breast-feed, which are both associated with less healthy children.
Early research suggests that pregnant women recover well from covid-19. Nevertheless, carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term can mean serious economic challenges both for the parents and for the United States at large.
President Trump has often touted his antiabortion credentials, saying, “I am pro-life and pro-life people will find out that I will be very loyal to them” and pledging to appoint antiabortion judges. As abortions rights observer Katha Pollitt recently outlined in the Atlantic, clinics that close temporarily often cannot afford to reopen. In some states, the pandemic, not judges, might be how the antiabortion movement succeeds in ending legal surgical abortion.
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Miranda Yaver (@mirandayaver) is a political scientist and postdoctoral scholar in health policy and management at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.