The Weekly Pulse: 2021 “Most Hostile” for Abortion; FDA Bans Menthol Cigarettes; Advocates Urge Biden to End Helms and Step Up Global Vaccine Campaign

For The Weekly Pulse (a revisit of an old Ms. column!), we’ve scoured the most trusted journalistic sources—and, of course, our Twitter feeds—to bring you this week’s most important news stories related to health and wellness.

This week: The 2021 legal session is the “most hostile” for reproductive rights in at least a decade; reproductive health advocates urge the Biden administration to take up the mantle of abortion care, starting with the repeal of the Helms Amendment; the FDA moves to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars within the next year; and the global vaccination effort remains slow due to a lack of support from developed countries.

Repro Rundown: 2021 Legislative Session “Most Hostile” for Reproductive Rights in a Decade

The Weekly Pulse: 2021 "Most Hostile" for Abortion; FDA Bans Menthol Cigarettes; Advocates Urge Biden to End Helms and Step Up Global Vaccination Campaign
Stop Abortion Bans Rally in St. Paul, Minn., on May 21, 2019. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

Editor’s note: The abortion laws discussed in this section are not yet in effect and will likely be challenged and blocked before making their way to the Supreme Court.

+ Anti-choice lawmakers across the country are waging an all-out war on reproductive freedom. Since January, there have been 536 abortion restrictions, including 146 abortion bans, introduced in 46 of the 50 states. Experts and researchers agree the 2021 legislative session shows no sign of slowing down and “is on track to be the most hostile for reproductive rights in at least a decade.

Medically, we know there is no reason to ban abortion, as multiple studies—including a landmark 2018 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine—show the procedure to be safe with few complications. But politically, regulating abortion to a level where those seeking health services are being harmed is a prime example of the ways in which gender, race, class and politics come together to create unnecessary obstacles and limit abortion access. 

“Right-wing ideologues are engaging in a shock and awe campaign against abortion rights that is largely getting lost against the background of a broader attack on other basic rights, including a wave of voter suppression laws and attacks on LGBTQ people,” Elizabeth Nash and Lauren Cross note for Guttmacher.

+ On Thursday, the Texas House gave preliminary approval to one such bill: SB 8, a so-called “heartbeat bill” passed by the Senate earlier this spring that would ban abortion after six weeks of gestation and allow anyone to file a lawsuit against an abortion provider.

Bills like these fly in the face of both health and legal experts:

  • On Tuesday, 200 physicians signed and sent an open letter to members of the Texas House expressing their opposition to Senate Bill 8.
  • An open letter signed by nearly 400 Texas lawyers and circulated by reproductive health advocates says the bill’s “unprecedented,” “extraordinary” and “exceptionally broad” language means “family members, clergy, domestic violence and rape crisis counselors, or referring physicians could be subject to tens of thousands of dollars in liability to total strangers.”

“As a family medicine physician who cares for people all over Texas, I am deeply disturbed and concerned about SB 8,” says Dr. Bhavik Kumar of Physicians for Reproductive Health. “This bill would have devastating and detrimental impacts on the lives of many Texans. Decisions around pregnancy are deeply personal and belong to the person who is pregnant and whose health we are prioritizing. I vehemently oppose SB 8 and urge legislators to recognize the humanity of those who seek access to abortion care and those who support them through that process.” 

+ A North Carolina House committee passed a bill banning abortions allegedly sought due to race or a Down syndrome diagnosis—a bill that aims to solve a problem Democratic lawmakers say simply doesn’t exist. “Abortion is a personal decision between a pregnant person and their doctor,” said Dr. Jonas Swartz, an ob-gyn at the Duke Gynecology Clinic. “The state should refrain from imposing on the patient’s decision. I’ve never had a patient request an abortion for the reason of race or suggest it was racially motivated. People choose abortion for many reasons. As a provider, I want to provide safe, nonjudgemental and high-quality care.”

+ On Thursday, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) signed a bill requiring abortion providers to inform patients receiving medication abortion about the potential for “abortion reversal”—which is not supported by scientific evidence or the medical community.

+ The Kentucky legislature passed a bill to remove the right to an abortion from the State Constitution. Voters will weigh in on this proposed amendment when it appears on the 2022 ballot, which reads: “To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.”

+ A Kansas court blocked the state’s ban on a standard, second-trimester abortion procedure.

+ Tennessee asked the Supreme Court to reimpose its law requiring a 48-hour waiting period for abortions, after lower courts found it unconstitutional. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron recently filed a brief along with 21 other Republican attorneys general in support of Tennessee.

+ Wyoming’s Gov. Mark Gordon signed a “born-alive” bill, which will take effect July 1. 

+ More than 140 organizations sent a letter calling on the Biden administration to support repealing the Helms Amendment, which has been used to prohibit foreign aid being used for abortion care.

The letter says:

“As written, the law restricts the use of US foreign assistance for ‘abortion as a method of family planning’. This does not include cases of rape, incest, or life-endangerment; however, lack of clarity around the law has prevented the use of funds in these cases, even in humanitarian emergency settings.”

+ Data from the CDC shows that births in the U.S. dropped by four percent in 2020—a 40-year low.

+ Over 45,00 transgender youth are at risk of losing access to gender-affirming health care with 10 states passing or considering bills to deny care, according to research from the Williams Institute. Most legislation would penalize medical providers who provide gender-affirming care to minors and some would penalize parents who seek care for their children.

+ The Supreme Court will decide whether Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron can defend a restrictive abortion law that was struck down by a lower court.

+ Following last year’s protests in Portland, Oregon, more than a thousand individuals have reported lasting health effects, including abnormal menstrual cycles, after being exposed to tear gas.

“At this time, we don’t know how tear gas causes these [menstrual] irregularities,” said Sven-Erid Jordt, a professor of anesthesiology at Duke. “It is possible that pain, stress, dehydration and exertion play a role. Alternatively, tear gas degradation products in the human body may have endocrine effects.”

Yet again—as we pointed out in last week’s Pulse—we are witnessing the consequences of a lack of scientific research on menstruation. The lack of information on menstruation tells us what we already know: that it is still a cultural taboo, and that institutions and donors do not consider menstruating bodies to be worth studying and understanding. Until we invest more money into researching menstruation and the way it interacts with other health issues, confusion about menstruation will unfortunately remain the norm.

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FDA to Ban Menthol Cigarettes (and All Flavored Cigars) by 2022

+ On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced they are working to ban menthol flavored cigarettes, and all flavored cigars, within the next year. Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., killing more than 480,000 people per year. While Congress passed a bill banning most flavored cigarettes in 2009, it handed the issue of menthol cigarettes over to the FDA.

Now, more than 11 years later, the FDA is proposing regulations to ban menthol cigarettes (as well as flavored cigars) from the market. The process could take a year or more to finalize and tobacco companies will likely challenge it, but the FDA claims it’s critical to take action to “significantly reduce disease and death” from these products. This is an issue the NAACP and medical experts have been sounding the alarm on for years. Now, the FDA is finally taking action that could help save countless lives.

Menthol cigarettes can mask the harshness of smoking with its cooling effects. And tobacco companies market these cigarettes heavily to communities of color: About 85 percent of Black smokers use them compared to 30 percent of white smokers. Plus, Black smokers are more likely to die from tobacco-related illnesses than white smokers. One study found that removing menthol cigarettes from the market could lead 230,000 Black Americans to quit. 

“Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products,” said acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock in a statement. “With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products.”

However, a coalition of over a dozen civil rights groups, including the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance, is concerned that broad prohibition on menthol and other flavored tobacco products may have “unintended criminal justice consequences.” In an open letter to Woodcock and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, the coalition writes:

“Such a ban will trigger criminal penalties, which will disproportionately impact people of color, as well as prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction. A ban will also lead to unconstitutional policing and other negative interactions with local law enforcement.

“A number of police encounters resulting in tragic deaths are linked to police enforcement of tobacco laws: Eric Garner, killed by a police chokehold, was illegally selling ‘loosie’ cigarettes, and Michael Brown was killed after being suspected of stealing a box of cigarillos. Even in the case of George Floyd, police were called to investigate a counterfeit bill used to purchase cigarettes.”

As Vaccination Rates Slow, Herd Immunity Slips out of Reach

+ Since April 13, the daily number of people receiving a dose in the United States has fallen by approximately 50 percent. Many public health experts now say it’s unlikely the U.S. will ever reach herd immunity due to how quickly the virus mutates, as well as the slow pace of vaccinations both in the U.S. and worldwide. 

“I think we need to shift from the virus being completely eradicated to becoming a manageable thing,” Dr. Jessica Jones, an infectious disease specialist with Methodist Health Systems, told a local news outlet. “If we can still get enough people vaccinated, regardless of the variants and things like that, we can make this a mild disease,” she said. 

+ Even as more than 45 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose, vaccine accessibility still remains highly inequitable, with Black and Hispanic people receiving “smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases and deaths and compared to their shares of the total population in most states,” according to a report compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

Advocates say the reason for slow vaccinations among these groups isn’t necessarily vaccine hesitancy, but rather the barriers to getting a vaccine such as transportation, the location of vaccination sites, confusing online sign-ups and work scheduling conflicts. 

+ On the other hand, misinformation is having an effect on vaccine hesitancy among white people. As much as it gives us a headache to talk about, Fox’s Tucker Carlson is one of the largest peddlers of vaccine conspiracies and misinformation. His primetime show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, reached 2.9 million (mostly white and Republican) viewers last week, making it the most-watched cable news show. 

Carlson’s nightly comments range from insidious questions such as “How many Americans have died after taking the COVID vaccines?” to more outrageous claims such as likening former President Obama to a “creepy old guy telling your children—your little kids—to take medicine whose effects we do not fully understand.”

Some of Carlson’s colleagues are beginning to speak out, but they don’t have nearly as much reach as the primetime host’s show. Even Dr. Fauci chimed in, calling Carlson’s suggestion that the vaccines do not work a “typical crazy conspiracy theory.” Although Carlson alone is not responsible, vaccination rates are considerably lagging in red states and white Republicans are the group most likely to say they are not getting the vaccine. 

A small group of Republican House members is trying to depoliticize the vaccine. The GOP Doctors Caucus released a PSA this week, urging people to talk to their doctors and consider getting the vaccine while emphasizing, “this is your decision to make.” In the video, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) says, “to get these vaccines to Americans as quickly as possible, they cut red tape, not corners.”

House Democrats Urge Biden Administration to Step Up in Global Fight Against COVID-19

+ A majority of House Democrats are asking President Biden to lift patent restrictions on the vaccine. In a signed letter, the group points out that the U.S. has an ethical obligation to prevent “unnecessary loss of life” as well as the economic consequences for our globalized economy “if only parts of the world are vaccinated.” 

Shortly thereafter, the Biden administration announced its support for waiving the patent restrictions, which will help ramp up vaccine production across the world. The announcement comes as India is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths—which is not only affecting India, but also other COVAX member countries relying on vaccines manufactured in India

Many in the global health community are criticizing wealthy nations for doing little to promote a global vaccination effort. Some are calling on the U.S. and other countries to begin shipping their extra doses of vaccines to other parts of the world. The White House announced it will export 60 million vaccine doses, but there is still demand for the Biden Administration to do more.

+ Fortunately, another COVID-19 vaccine is expected to come to market soon: The German company CureVac is set to announce the results of its late-stage clinical trial as early as next week. Vaccine experts say the CureVac vaccine could be extremely useful in developing countries and rural areas. It uses the same RNA technology as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, but unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines which need to be kept in a deep freezer, CureVac’s vaccine can be kept in a refrigerator.

About and

Corinne Ahrens is a recent graduate of The American University where she studied Political Science with a specialization in Gender, Race, & Politics as well as Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Corinne has been writing for Ms. since October 2019 and is a former Ms. editorial intern. She currently works at Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy in their Philadelphia office.
Giselle Hengst recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with degrees in Women's & Gender Studies and Medicine, Health, & Society. She is currently an editorial and social media intern at Ms. magazine.