The global disruption caused by coronavirus has become yet another battle in the American abortion wars, and it’s one that anti-abortion activists are winning.
Multiple governors and attorney generals have asked their states’ clinics to stop providing abortions. Clinics that rely on doctors who fly in to perform the procedure are struggling to bring them in. Independent providers, which provide the majority of American abortions, are facing financial devastation.
“Probably every independent clinic in the country is at risk,” said Nikki Madsen, executive director of the Abortion Care Network, a national membership group for independent abortion providers. “This is the thing that scares me the most, of anything that I’ve seen in the last 18 years, of potentially really decimating abortion access in this country.”
In the four decades since the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, no state has gone without at least one abortion clinic. Now, several are teetering on the brink of seeing their clinics vanish. By declaring that abortions are “non-essential” or “elective,” or that medical procedures only be performed in case of an emergency, officials in six states — Ohio, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Kentucky — have called for clinics to stop providing most abortions.
Planned Parenthood clinics in Ohio have vowed to continue to provide abortions, arguing that abortion is time-sensitive and essential (a position supported by the American College of Obstreticians and Gynecologists). But multiple Texas clinics contacted by VICE News this week said that they were no longer performing abortions. Disobeying any COVID-19-related orders could land a provider in jail for up to 180 days or facing penalties of up to $1,000. Providers, including Planned Parenthood, have now sued the state.
The order to stop performing abortions also hasn’t entirely stopped Texans from getting them. Instead, they’re leaving the state: By the end of March, Fund Texas Choice will have paid for 27 people to travel out of Texas to get abortions — more than double the number of people the group paid for in February.
“You would put people at an increased risk of not just contracting the virus, but spreading it,” Program Chair Stephanie Gomez said of the Texas state government. “Because you are essentially forcing people to continue to travel.”
The anti-abortion movement has celebrated the states’ orders. More than 50 leading anti-abortion activists signed a recent letter to Alex Azar, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Among other demands, the letter urges public officials to make abortion clinics do as some other healthcare centers have done: close, and donate their personal protective equipment to providers caring for COVID-19 patients.
“While we are in a hectic race to save lives,” the letter reads, “Planned Parenthood and other powers in the abortion industry remain insistent on taking the lives of innocent unborn children.”
Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest and the national director of Priests for Life, signed the letter. While the state attempts to close clinics are temporary, Pavone believes that the lessons of the pandemic will be felt long after the actual threat subsides.