I was midway through my volunteer shift for a Texas abortion fund hotline when the Texas attorney general banned abortions.
I realized something was amiss when I spoke to a college student who had called our hotline that morning, March 23, seeking funding for her procedure.
By the time I reached her that afternoon, the clinic where her appointment was scheduled for March 25 had been shut down until April 21.
“They closed because of coronavirus,” the young woman told me.
In actuality, abortion clinics around the state closed because Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, decided that nearly all abortions are medically unnecessary and could be postponed. Paxton was interpreting Governor Greg Abbott’s order halting nonessential medical services.
“The truth is abortion—for the most part—is an elective procedure that can be done later,” Paxton said, ignoring the time restrictions that the state already places on it.
An abortion couldn’t be done later for the young woman on the phone. Waiting until April 21 would push her beyond the legal limit of 22 weeks for almost all abortions in Texas, forcing her to either continue the pregnancy to term or seek a costly late-term abortion out of state. The caller, who had already lost her job due to COVID-19, could not afford to wait. She contacted a clinic out of state and scheduled her procedure for later in the week.
She would drive over a thousand miles to access a medical procedure that is her constitutional right, and she is one of the lucky ones.
Many women will not be able to travel out of state to clinics that are already overburdened. And those that can travel will do so at great personal risk to exposure to COVID-19 while traveling, taking airplanes and staying in hotels at a time when the rest of the country is trying desperately to avoid these practices.
The ban on all abortions was opportunistic, medically unnecessary and led to a whiplash-inducing round of judicial back-and-forth. The legality of abortion has been in constant limbo, changing at least five times in two weeks.
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As of April 13, the Fifth Circuit has ruled that abortion procedures must be accessible for women approaching the 22-week limit, and, after originally rejecting the exemption, that medication abortions must also be accessible.
There was no pandemic-related justification for banning medication abortions in the first place. These are administered by pills early in pregnancy and do not require any use of PPE.
In his concurring opinion to the latest Fifth Circuit ruling, Judge James Dennis observed that banning medication abortion because of PPE needs was “a strong indication that the enforcement is pretextual and does not bear a ‘real or substantial relation to the public health crisis’ we are experiencing.”
As for procedural abortions, most take place in clinics rather than hospitals, so resources would not be diverted from critical patients. And even in hospital settings, seven national medical organizations issued a joint statement urging that abortion procedures not be delayed.
A country can be measured by how it responds to the needs of its most vulnerable populations during a crisis. The UK, for example, has taken steps to make abortion more accessible, amending UK policies to allow women to proceed with medical abortions at home following a telemedicine consult.
Texas has not offered that option, confirming what abortion access advocates already knew: The COVID-19 crisis is just the latest smokescreen being used to strip women of their reproductive rights in the state.
Texas already has several barriers to abortion in place: patients must receive state-mandated counseling and wait 24 hours between a sonogram and an abortion procedure; telemedicine is prohibited; minors must get parental consent or undergo an onerous judicial bypass procedure; and abortion, except for cases involving life endangerment or severe health effects, is not covered by either public or private insurance, forcing even those women who have private insurance to pay out of pocket and causing devastating financial effects for women who rely on public insurance.
Abortion funds like the one I volunteer for do their best to mitigate these effects, attempting to close financial gaps and connect clients to resources to assist with transportation, lodging, and childcare. With hundreds of procedures now canceled across the state, abortion funds are working to help women access clinics in states where abortion has not been banned, recalling the underground networks that operated in the days before Roe v. Wade, before abortion was recognized as a constitutional right.
With decisions about emergency measures now being made on the state level, we seem to be sliding back into that pre-Roe period. In Texas, our state’s leaders have never been shy about their desire to trample abortion rights, but using emergency measures to address a global pandemic to strip women of their reproductive rights is particularly shameful.
Unfortunately, Texas is not alone. Alabama, Iowa, Ohio and Oklahoma have attempted similar measures, all citing the pandemic, and other states are considering following suit.
We may not be allowed to take to the streets in protest, but we can still pick up the phone and call our governors and state representatives.
We can tell them that the pandemic is not an excuse for playing politics with women’s health, and that their energy is better spent fixing a public health crisis that already exists—instead of creating a new one.
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