Abortion Bans Are Bad Medicine—Especially During a Pandemic

As doctors on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are putting our lives on the line to to care for our patients.  Yet while our patients and colleagues suffer, governors across the nation are using the pandemic as a political tool to ban abortions.  Rather than listen to the very doctors they say they are protecting, these lawmakers are defying medical evidence and expert recommendation.  

In our home state of Texas, Governor Abbott’s coronavirus-related executive order on March 22 to delay all “non-essential” surgeries and procedures was interpreted by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to include nearly all abortions.  A dizzying back-and-forth battle between the AG and pro-choice groups went all the way to the Supreme Court before the state blinked and announced the ban was “over” on April 22.   

We are relieved on behalf of Texas women—but it is cold comfort.  The viral spread of similar bans across the nation threatens the well-being of women beyond our state, as does the proliferation of misinformation accompanying them.  

Alaska and Arkansas still have abortion bans in effect.  Five states, including Texas, instituted abortion bans as part of their pandemic response that have since ended, and four other states passed bans that have been blocked by federal judges.  

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Many “elective” procedures have been put on hold due to the COVID pandemic.  So why should abortions be allowed? 

The most important answer is that timely access to abortion saves lives and is a critically important part of women’s healthcare.  Childbirth carries a risk of death that is 14 times higher than abortion.  Even in healthy women, pregnancy can cause severe bleeding, heart failure, kidney disease, infection, extreme high blood pressure and depression.  

Abortions conducted by trained providers have a low overall risk—it remains one of the most common surgical procedures conducted in the country and has lower complication rates than having wisdom teeth pulled, tonsils removed, or a colonoscopy.  Even though they carry far less risk than childbirth, abortions are time-sensitive procedures, and the chances of complications increase significantly as a woman progresses in her pregnancy.  

We know that when women are turned away from abortion clinics, many feel forced to go to extreme measures, including crossing state lines, to get care.  This is the opposite of what we want in a pandemic.  

Limiting abortion access will also put undue burden on our already stressed healthcare system by increasing self-induced abortions and ultimately resulting in a greater need for hospitalization and loss of life and health.  If these bans stand, they will increase the number of medical complications, jeopardize women’s health and needlessly jam emergency rooms doctors across the nation are trying to keep clear. 

Another alleged reason for these orders is “to expand hospital bed capacity as the state responds to the COVID-19 virus” and to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE).  Yet only 3 percent of abortions take place in a hospital in the United States.  Procedural abortions utilize minimal PPE, and medical abortions use no PPE at all.

These bans will not help our collective efforts to protect patients and healthcare workers, but they will increase the risk of death and injury to women.  

During this crisis, women need more access to their doctors and reproductive healthcare, not less.  We support the efforts of states like New Jersey, Virginia and Washington, which have explicitly protected reproductive rights during the COVID pandemic.  This is what we need more of: lawmakers working with the medical and scientific community to protect patients and healthcare workers.

As doctors fighting for our patients, we should not be threatened by politicians just for providing healthcare we deem necessary for our patients. 

Please let us take care of the patients who need us—all the patients who need us—and don’t create an additional and unnecessary health crisis.  

About and

Aliza Norwood, MD is a board-certified internal medicine physician and medical educator based in Austin, Texas, and is a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project. Her views are her own.
Anu Kapadia, MD is a third-year Internal Medicine resident. Her views are her own.