The Weekly Pulse: The Fight for Abortion Rights Continues; The Problem with Booster Shots

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: The Fifth Circuit Court upholds Texas’s 15-week D&E abortion procedure ban; Arizona sued by reproductive rights groups and physicians over new abortion law; Planned Parenthood sues Montana over 20-week abortion ban; unvaccinated pregnant women are dying from COVID-19 at an alarming rate; and when it comes to booster shots, is it ethical to disburse a third round of vaccines in wealthy countries when the rest of the world is struggling to catch up?

Repro Run Down: A Multi-Year Attack on Abortion Rights

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Protesters gather outside the Senate Gallery in June 2013, minutes before midnight to stall Senate Bill 5, another bill that would put strict regulations on abortion facilities, from going to a vote at the Texas State Capitol. (Lauren Gerson / Flickr)

+ The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ban on performing dilation and evacuation (D&E) procedures, the standard method of abortion, after approximately 15 weeks of pregnancy. D&Es are the safest method of abortion for second trimester pregnancies. Second trimester pregnancies account for 11 percent of all abortions but D&E accounts for 95 percent of these procedures. According to Texas law, physicians’ risk two years in jail and a hefty fine if they continue to perform this procedure.

One of the plaintiffs, Dr. Bhavik Kumar, an abortion provider at Planned Parenthood Center for Choice in Houston said in response to the court’s decision:

“Today’s decision is deeply disturbing to me as a physician. By allowing the state to ban the standard method of abortion at this stage of pregnancy, the court has allowed extremist politicians to interfere in private health care decisions that should stay between patients and their physicians.”

+ Anti-abortion extremists have been pushing for D&E restrictions since 1974. Now that a federal court has sided with Texas, they may succeed in making second trimester abortions inaccessible. But first: What is dilation and evacuation?

D&E is a surgical procedure in which doctors dilate a woman’s cervix and use suction to remove the fetus. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), D&E is the safest and most effective method of abortion for second trimester pregnancies. The Guttmacher Institute says D&E bans “interfere with providers’ medical judgement and limit options for patients.” For example, physicians would be required to modify their care—and one modification would require women to undergo an additional, invasive step before D&E. Ultimately, banning D&E procedures would make second trimester abortions more expensive, more complicated and likely more painful.

+ This fall, the Supreme Court will decide the fate of abortion rights in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The case will review 50 years of precedent set by Roe v. Wade and decide whether Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban is constitutional.

Guttmacher estimates that between 6.3 and 7.4 percent of all U.S. abortions are obtained at or around 15 weeks of pregnancy. If the Supreme Court sides with Mississippi, this dangerous new precedent would substantially increase how far patients must drive to receive safe abortion care. Obviously, wealthy people will be inconvenienced by this decision but they have the means to drive to a pro-abortion state. The people most affected by this decision will be low-income people and women of color who have been systematically denied the resources to access safe abortion care.

+ Prominent reproductive rights organizations and medical experts have teamed up in a lawsuit to block Arizona’s new anti-abortion law. The new law bans certain abortions based on a patient’s reason for seeking one and imposes a personhood requirement for fetuses, embryos and fertilized eggs. “Politicians should not get to decide what is an acceptable reason for seeking an abortion,” said Emily Nestler, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“Harmful bans like this one are part of a larger effort by anti-abortion extremists to stigmatize abortion and drive a wedge between patients and their doctors,” said Ruth Harlow, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “This law invades standard prenatal care when the last thing patients need is the government making complex medical and personal decisions for them.”

(See also: “What the Public Gets Wrong About ‘Reason-Based’ Abortion Bans“)

+ Planned Parenthood sues Montana over new abortion ban set to take effect on October 1, 2021. Montana’s law would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, restrict abortion pill access, require physicians to ask patients if they want an ultrasound and exclude insurance plans that cover abortion from the federal exchange. It is unclear how the courts will rule since Montana’s constitution grants a stronger right to privacy than others.

COVID-19: The Great Booster Debate

+ Pregnant women were reluctant to get the vaccine; now they are dying from COVID-19. Bloomberg News reported that 76.5 percent of pregnant women are unvaccinated. One study published in the JAMA Network Open found that unvaccinated pregnant women are 15 times more likely to die, 14 times more likely to be intubated and 22 times more likely to have a preterm birth if they become infected with the virus. According to Allison Cahill, a professor at University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School, low vaccination rates among pregnant people “created this perfect storm of pregnant people getting extremely sick and being hospitalized, and even requiring care in the intensive care unit.”

+ Pfizer becomes the first COVID-19 vaccine company to win full FDA approval. The main three vaccines—Pfizer, Moderna and J&J—have been operating under an emergency use authorization which allowed the vaccine to be administered to the public while the FDA continued to collect data on efficacy and safety. Granting full FDA approval to Pfizer means that the FDA has collected sufficient evidence to determine that the vaccine is safe and effective. CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen believes the new approval status could affect vaccination rates:

“Some polls, including from the Kaiser Family Foundation, have suggested that as many as three in 10 people cite lack of full approval as a primary reason for not getting the vaccine. It’s possible that some of these individuals will now overcome their hesitancy, but I suspect there will be a much smaller number who will line up to get vaccinated soon after full approval.”

+ Health experts believe booster shots administered in wealthy countries, could prolong the pandemic. Although most Western countries are steamrolling into the next phase of COVID-19 vaccines, the rest of the world is struggling to get a shot. If vaccination rates remain low in other parts of the world, new variants will continue to mutate. In a Twitter thread, Biden’s former COVID-19 advisor, Andy Slavitt explained the ethical dilemma at hand:

+ In June, Israel became one of the first case studies on waning immunity; now Israel is fighting the Delta variant with booster shots. Less than a month into their booster drive, evidence from Israel suggests booster shots are having an impact on infection rates but other factors are also at play. Doron Gazit, a member of the Hebrew University’s COVID-19 expert team, believes the steady decline in infection rates can be attributed to the combination of booster shots and “more cautious behavior.” The evidence shows booster shots may be a helpful step towards defeating the virus, but other preventative measures like masking and social distancing are equally important.

+ Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to the president, believes the United States could control the virus by next spring if the majority of people get vaccinated. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Fauci said, “If we can get through this winter and get, really the majority—overwhelming majority—of the 90 million people who have not been vaccinated, vaccinated, I hope we can start to get some good control in the spring of 2022.”

Only 52 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated and while a change in FDA approval status may prompt some people to get vaccinated, it is unlikely that a majority of anti-vaxxers will be swayed. So, the question becomes: What happens if a majority of people are not vaccinated by next spring?

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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.