While much of the COVID-19 news coverage has centered around sudden challenges to hospital capacity, job security, and even toilet paper availability, in the halls of government, abortion has been one of the major sticking points. Like an infection pouncing on a compromised immune system, Republicans have seized an opportunity to double down on abortion restrictions while stalling the efforts of lawmakers to pass emergency relief legislation. On March 11, House Democrats proposed legislation that called for paid sick leave, expanded unemployment and food security funding, and Medicaid reimbursement for testing and treatment, among other actions. Although Republicans also voiced opposition to federally mandated sick leave expansion, their main gripe was that the drafted legislation did not affirm the Hyde Amendment’s abortion-specific funding limitations (Medicaid funds cannot be used to cover abortion, leaving low-income people to shoulder the costs associated with this medical procedure). Taking things one step further, Republican leaders criticised the funding proposals as an inappropriate response to the current epidemic and an attempt to channel federal funding into abortion care, thus recklessly dragging their feet in providing urgent relief.
So while people wait on desperately-needed aid—and the health care industry scrambles to test and treat symptomatic individuals—staunch anti-choice legislators are buckling down to further restrict abortion access. Even before COVID-19, abortion access was direly limited in Louisiana. As this pandemic unfolds, access is increasingly threatened, with each new heavy-handed opportunistic attempted restriction. In a pandemic, abortion access is limited. Without access, there is no choice.
On March 4, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo (formerly June Medical Services v. Gee), a case that threatens to shutter all but one abortion clinic in Louisiana. While communities have been bracing themselves for the verdict to be determined in June of this year, abortion is already virtually inaccessible for many people. Louisiana boasts the largest number of abortion restrictions of any state—a whopping 89!—including prohibition of the use of Medicaid, a state-forced and medically-unnecessary counseling session, a state-forced 24-hour waiting period, among many other obstacles. These restrictions force people seeking abortions into undesirable situations—prohibitively high costs for procedures, people being forced later into their gestation to accrue adequate funds, and traveling unreasonable distances, as the only clinics in Louisiana are in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport.
The rallying cries of abortion-affirming movements are often choice and access. But what does choice mean when there are only three clinics for one million women of child-bearing age in this state? What does choice mean when the state forces procedure costs to be prohibitively high? What does choice mean in a time of pandemic, with the threat of temporary closure of clinics around the country growing ever-nearer? What does choice mean when there is no access?
As COVID-19 infections and deaths increase across the states, abortion providers are experiencing increased strain and experiencing forced closure. Wait times lengthen as clinics must stagger and limit appointments to prevent COVID-19 exposure. Some patients are forced to travel further, wait longer, and pay more for the health care that they choose—the health care they deserve. These barriers are punitive for all, and they become virtually insurmountable for some people: for minors without parental consent, undocumented people, and people without the means to travel.
As we have already seen in their attempts to hold relief legislation hostage until their anti-choice demands have been met, these lawmakers can and will seize this chaotic and painful moment to push forward their punitive agenda. Red states will see further attacks on abortion care, from pushes to assign it a “non-essential” medical care status to anti-abortion protesters frothing at the mouths in (non-socially-distant!) groups outside of clinics. As argued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and a number of other medical institutions and maternal health researchers in their joint statement released this month, “Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care. It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible. The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person’s life, health, and well-being.”
The struggle to access abortion is caught in the crossfires of anti-abortion legislative attacks, COVID-19 systems breakdowns, and en masse wage loss.Those who fight for abortion access are no strangers to seemingly-insurmountable obstacles; across the country, they are mobilizing to protect their communities, their patients, and each other. Through this time of uncertainty, chaos, and grief, abortion care must be recognized and protected as essential health care.
By the time you are reading this, it is likely that abortion access across the country will look radically different than it did in mid-March, as this piece was being written. This situation is dynamic, and state orders are rolling out—and being fought against—daily. Stay tuned to state and national updates with regards to abortion access as COVID-19 continues to spread.
The New Orleans Abortion Fund is dedicated to providing financial support for people seeking abortion, compassionate communication with every person who accesses our warmline, and connection to up-to-date information and resources for people across the state seeking the health care of their choice. If you are seeking funding for your abortion, please leave a voicemail at (504) 363-1112. If you’d like to volunteer remotely under quarantine, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are seeking to donate, please visit our website at neworleansabortionfund.org. All donations go directly to funding abortions. Everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.