The Weekly Pulse: Majority of U.S. Supports Roe; Biden Won’t Say ‘Abortion’; Europe Grapples With Surging COVID Cases

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.

In this edition: A new Gallup poll suggests 58 percent of Americans are opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade; If/When/How launches a legal fund for people seeking self-managed abortions; Biden buys 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses for global use ahead of the G-7 summit; and COVID cases surge in Europe as India’s Delta variant spreads. 

Repro Run Down: Most Americans Support Roe v. Wade

In this edition of the Weekly Pulse, we cover Europe's struggle with COVID-19 and its variants, the Women's Health Protection Act, and more.
A rally against abortion bans in Seattle in 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

+ More than 140 organizations are calling for the repeal of the 1973 Helms Amendment, a law restricting the U.S. from funding abortions overseas. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International U.S. and the Global Justice Center, signed a letter asking Biden to clarify that the existing law does not ban funding for all abortions and provides exceptions for rape, incest and medical emergencies. The letter also calls on Biden to back a bill introduced in Congress last year that would repeal the Helms Amendment. Data from the Guttmacher Institute suggests repealing the Helms Amendment could, per year, prevent 19 million unsafe abortions and save 17,000 pregnant people from death. 

+ House lawmakers reintroduced legislation to allow any person receiving military health care benefits access to all FDA-approved contraceptives. The bill ensures that any non-active-duty service members can access coverage without a copay. As it stands, full coverage is afforded only to active-duty service members—meaning non-active-duty service members including those in the Reserve, National Guard, inactive reservists, retirees and their dependents, must pay out-of-pocket costs for contraception. Data suggests 95 percent of female active-duty members are of reproductive age and studies show that women are more likely to use contraceptives when costs are down. The bill would also require the Department of Defense to create a family planning education program for service members. 

+ Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill banning homophobic language from the state’s sexual education policies. Any language that calls homosexuality “illegal” or “unacceptable” will be removed from the state’s laws on sex education. The bill also strikes a paragraph added in 1992 that required sex education classes to emphasize that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle and a criminal offense under state laws. Homosexuality has not been considered a criminal offense in Alabama since 2003 when the Supreme Court struck down state sodomy laws. The bill still retains language that promotes abstinence but will now require “medically accurate” resources on sexual health and sexually transmitted infections. 

+ Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill banning abortions sought only due to genetic abnormalities. Doctors who perform abortions in such cases will face felony charges, and the bill includes provisions that ban mail-delivery of abortion medications, requires fetal remains to be buried or cremated and prohibits state funds from being allocated towards abortions or abortion research. After signing the bill into law, Ducey tweeted, “Every life holds immeasurable value—regardless of genetic makeup,” but Arizona Democrats are calling the bill an “expansive and intrusive step toward criminalizing, restricting and regulating women, doctors, universities and public institutions.”

Mindy Jane Roseman and Rachel Rebouché sounded the alarm on so called “reason-based” abortion bans for Ms.:

Criminalizing choice does not create the conditions for racial, gender and disability equality. And policing pregnant people’s decisions does not result in deeper inclusivity or greater acceptance of and support for people with Down syndrome, for instance. To the contrary, reason-based bans do nothing to assist potential parents and ignore the many considerations that drive people’s decisions to raise a child. 

+ Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a bill requiring survivors of rape and incest to first report the crime to law enforcement in order to have an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion rights advocates say that this law will only further deter women from seeking an abortion because most incidents of rape are not reported to the police. Earlier this year, Hutchinson also signed a near-total abortion ban that did not include exceptions for rape or incest. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit against Arkansas’s near-total abortion ban which becomes effective on July 28th. 

+ In Arkansas, the ACLU also filed a lawsuit against the state’s ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender youth. The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on behalf of four transgender adolescents in Arkansas and their families. Only six months into the year, 2021 has seen an “unprecedented” number of attacks on trans rights. The law bans gender-affirming treatments such as hormone therapy or puberty blockers.

“Gender-affirming care is life-saving care for our clients, and they’re terrified of what will happen if this law is allowed to take effect. No child should be cut off from the medical care they need or denied their fundamental right to be themselves—but this law would do both,” said Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. 

+ Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed a bill banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. On April 28, Idaho became the second state to enact a so-called “heartbeat ban,” barring abortions after six weeks. The bill makes exceptions for medical emergencies and includes exceptions for rape or incest but only if reported to a law enforcement agency or child protective services. Planned Parenthood Northwest and Hawaii railed against the governor’s decision in a recent statement:

“Let’s be clear: Abortion is still completely legal in Idaho, even after six weeks. This legislation changes nothing… What it really does is simply set Idaho up for a lawsuit if a similar ban in another federal court upholds their unconstitutional legislation—and there is nothing that indicates that would ever happen. But even if it does, we will launch a lawsuit immediately to stop it.”

+ Since 2017, abortion clinics in Iowa have been dwindling and now less than half of all women in Iowa have access a medical facility that performs abortion procedures. Emboldened by the Mississippi Supreme Court case, Iowa is attempting to dismantle any abortion protections inscribed in the state’s constitution. The Iowa legislature advanced a proposal that would amend the state’s constitution and include language that prohibits a woman’s right to an abortion. The legislature must pass the constitutional amendment again in 2023 before it goes to a public vote in 2024. 

+ Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed multiple anti-abortion bills, including a near-total abortion ban and a “trigger law” that would immediately ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. The abortion ban only makes exceptions for medical emergencies, “to prevent the death of the mother or to prevent substantial or irreversible physical impairment of the mother that substantially increases the risk of death,” but does not make exceptions for rape or incest. 

+Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed one bill requiring fetal remains from procedural abortions to be buried or cremated. According to the Associated Press, the language used in the Tennessee bill is similar to the language used in an Indiana bill upheld by the Supreme Court in 2019.

Gov. Lee also signed a bill banning gender-affirming health care for transgender youth. The ban differs from the original Arkansas bill as it only prohibits doctors from performing gender-affirming treatments in pre-pubescent youths, while the Arkansas bill bans doctors from performing gender-affirming treatments on anyone under the age of 18. Both laws will inflict great harm on Tennessee and Arkansas transgender youth.

Lee has signed a slew of anti-LGBT legislation this year including a ban on trans athletes, a bathroom sign requirement and a bill that requires schools to notify parents 30 days in advance if they plan on teaching students about gender identity or sexual orientation. 

+ Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed three anti-abortion bills, including a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a requirement for providers to offer a viewing of their ultrasound before an abortion and strict restrictions on administering medication abortions. 

+ If/When/How announced it will be launching a legal defense fund for pregnant people who seek self-induced abortions. Right now, five states explicitly criminalize self-managed abortion. Although the exact number of people arrested for having an abortion is unknown, If/When/How executive director Jill Adams said, “There have been criminal investigations of people in more than 20 states. That includes California and New York and other ‘blue’ states.” 

+ The onslaught of anti-abortion attacks in the U.S. may make it appear like anti-abortion sentiment is winning—but abortion supporters are still in the majority. A new Gallup poll suggests that 58 percent of Americans are opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Furthermore, 56 percent of Americans are opposed to banning abortions after the 18th week of pregnancy and 58 percent of Americans oppose “heartbeat bans,” which ban abortions at the onset of a fetal heartbeat. Overall, 78 percent support abortion in at least some circumstances.

COVID-19: The Indomitable Delta Variant

+ The spread of the highly contagious delta variant has led to a surge of COVID-19 cases in the U.K. The Delta variant arrived in the U.K. in March and has quickly become the dominant strain of COVID-19. According to Britain’s top scientific advisor, the Delta variant is 60 percent more contagious than the Alpha variant which previously terrorized the U.K. As opposed to the U.S. vaccination strategy, which relies on individuals making an effort to schedule and get the vaccine, the British government has been more involved in vaccine rollout. Last year, the British government decided to delay the second dose to ensure more people received at least one dose of the vaccine, but some health experts fear this decision has left the British public vulnerable to the Delta variant. Evidence suggests that one dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is only 33 percent effective against the Delta variant. There are three important lessons that can be learned from the emergence of the indomitable Delta variant: 

  • One: Vaccines are still the most effective way, by far, to defeat this terrible pandemic. Nothing matters more than the speed at which shots go into arms—in Britain, in the U.S. and especially in low-income countries, where vaccination rates are still low.
  • Two: Behavior restrictions can still play a role in the interim. If hospitalizations or deaths in Britain rise over the next two weeks, there will be a strong argument for pushing back the full reopening of activities. And that has obvious implications for the U.S. as well. Restricting indoor activities for unvaccinated people is particularly important, but with states finally opening up again this might be difficult to reverse.
  • Three: Caseloads are no longer as important a measure as they used to be. Before the vaccines were available, more cases inevitably meant more hospitalizations and deaths. Now, the connection is less certain. As a recent New York Times story put it, paraphrasing British scientists, “upticks in new infections are tolerable so long as the vast majority do not lead to serious illness or death.”
In this edition of the Weekly Pulse, we cover Europe's struggle with COVID-19 and its variants, the Women's Health Protection Act, and more.

+ After receiving global criticism for their reluctance to share vaccine information, the Biden administration has bought 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses to distribute around the world. Biden has a plan to distribute 80 million doses by the end of June, with 19 million vaccine doses being shared with COVAX. COVAX is an international vaccine fund that was created with the intention of sharing 2 billion vaccine doses to low-income countries. Biden will reserve at least 6 million vaccine doses for countries experiencing severe COVID-19 outbreaks, such as India. But some believe Biden’s vaccine plan is a political ploy to make America look like a more substantial world leader ahead of the G-7 summit. 

+ The lab leak theory raises reasonable concerns about the safety and security of virology labs around the world. Even if COVID-19 did not escape from a virology lab in Wuhan, China, greater transparency is needed between virology labs and the public. So far, the World Health Organization (WHO) claims that there is no evidence that suggests the virus has been genetically altered. But scientists have attempted to genetically alter other viruses in the past. For example, a project in 2005 attempted to resurrect the 1918 flu pandemic and a 2011 project altered the Bird Flu virus. Again, there is no evidence that suggests the coronavirus has been genetically altered, but if scientists are capable of manufacturing such a deadly disease, transparency with the public is needed.

+ Vietnam has uncovered a new COVID-19 variant with similar characteristics to India’s Delta variant. Vietnam’s Health Minister Nguyen Thanh believes this new variant is responsible for the country’s recent uptick in COVID-19 cases. Vietnam was praised for its handling of COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, and with this new deadly variant on the loose, Vietnam will be reinstating strict restrictions. 

+ New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will relax “virtually all” COVID-19 restrictions now that the state is 70 percent vaccinated. What does that mean for New Yorkers? No social distancing, no health screenings, and no capacity restrictions. But the mask mandate will continue to comply with CDC regulations. Right now, the CDC recommends wearing a mask on trains, buses and other forms of transportation, such as airplanes. Businesses have their own policies when it comes to wearing masks, so it is always important to research before visiting a store. 

+ Intrigued by Ohio’s vaccine lottery, West Virginia decided to create its own incentive program with guns instead of money. On Tuesday, June 1, Governor Jim Justice announced the lottery drawing will run from June 20 to August 4. The prizes include five hunting rifles, five hunting shotguns, two brand new trucks, five lifetime hunting and fishing licenses and one person will win $1.588 million. 

New Research and Culture

+ A report from the Guttmacher Institute shows that states have enacted 61 abortion restrictions in the first four months of this year, with 2021 likely to be the most hostile for abortion rights since the Roe v. Wade decision. In an interview with Ms., Elizabeth Nash, one of the report’s authors, commented on the pervasive nature of these attacks. “It doesn’t look like anything is abating for the foreseeable future,” said Nash. Nash believes these attacks are happening now because “the 2020 elections resulted in a number of state legislatures becoming more conservative in places like Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, Montana and Wyoming. But also, we have a Supreme Court that has announced that they are welcoming more cases on abortion.” 

Despite an onslaught of anti-abortion legislation coming out of Republican-dominated state legislatures, Democratic leaders and abortion rights advocates are doubling down on their efforts to codify abortion rights into law. For example, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujam Grisham repealed pre-Roe abortion restrictions, Virginia adopted a law expanding abortion coverage in private insurance plans, and the Women’s Health Protection Act has been re-introduced in the House and Senate.

The Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) would solidify a provider’s right to perform abortion procedures and a woman’s right to access an abortion. In a press conference on WHPA, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) addressed the racist legacy of anti-abortion laws and said, “We have to pro-actively affirm that abortion care is health care. We have a pro-choice majority in the House and we need to act like it.”

+ We Testify launched “Did Biden Say Abortion Yet?”—a campaign that tracks Biden’s usage of the word “abortion.” Biden has not used the word abortion in any of his official statements regarding abortion rights, and even Press Secretary Jen Psaki has avoided using the word in press conferences. We Testify is urging President Biden and his team to help destigmatize abortion care by specifically using the word “abortion” in abortion-related policy discussions.

+ A study from Aid Access shows that the cost of obtaining in-person abortion care is the top reason why people seek self-managed abortions. Aid Access offers a mail-order service for medication abortion, meaning women can order mifepristone—a pill that induces abortions—through their website. According to their study, 73.5 percent of women said they were seeking self-induced abortions because they were unable to afford in-clinic care. An abortion can cost anywhere from $0 to $1,500 depending on an individual’s health care coverage. With the Hyde Amendment removed from the president’s budget proposal, federally funded programs such as Medicaid will eventually be used to cover abortion. Until then, most low-income women without private health insurance are forced to pay out of pocket.  

+ A group of national sexual and reproductive health advocacy organizations released a report detailing the need to increase access to LGBTQ-inclusive sex education content in schools. Sex education in mandated in 29 states and the District of Columbia but studies suggest sex education programs fail to adequately educate students on LGBT health-related topics. The report suggests that 24 percent of LGBTQ students never had sex education, and of the students who did have sex education, only 8.2 percent were taught LGBTQ inclusive topics. Some states such as Texas, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma prohibit schools from integrating LGBTQ content into sex education programs. 

+A new study of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines found no safety concerns associated with vaccination for pregnant people. 

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Kristen Batstone is a senior at American University studying women, gender, sex and sexuality studies with a specialization in social sciences. She is currently the health policy intern for the National Women's Health Network in Washington, D.C.