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Misguided politicians are focused on abortion instead of the pandemic

Misguided politicians are focused on abortion instead of the pandemic
© Bonnie Cash

In Washington, the Biden administration has been laser-focused on getting desperately needed COVID-19 relief to Americans. But while they’re managing the public health crisis at hand, extreme and misguided governors and legislators from Arkansas to South Carolina are ignoring the devastation caused by COVID-19 and, instead, are focusing on stripping people of their rights by banning abortion. Make no mistake: this crisis will come to Washington. 

On Tuesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa HutchinsonAsa HutchinsonSarah McBride says US will 'eventually' elect a transgender president Two-thirds of Americans oppose laws limiting transgender rights: poll Arkansas state House votes to end 'Confederate Flag Day' MORE (R) signed a near-total abortion ban, just over a week after he rolled back COVID-19 safety measures against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The bill would make virtually all abortions illegal in Arkansas. At a time when people are in urgent need of economic relief and basic safety precautions, dismantling abortion access is cruel and dangerous. It inserts politicians squarely between patients and their providers, where they don’t belong. 

It’s dangerous and unconstitutional, but that’s the point. In his signing statement, Hutchison said the quiet part out loud, explicitly acknowledging that the real goal of the bill is to force the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade. Lawmakers in Arkansas sunk taxpayer time and money into what is effectively a demand letter to the Supreme Court. It speaks volumes as to where their actual priorities lie. 

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But to understand this issue, you have to see the full picture. This ban isn’t an outlier: it’s part of a nationwide, coordinated effort to eliminate access to abortion. The Arkansas abortion ban is just one of more than 100 pending bans across the country. Altogether, 384 anti-abortion restrictions were introduced in 43 states in January and February alone.

South Carolina just passed a similarly extreme and unconstitutional anti-abortion law, banning abortion at six weeks, before many people know they’re pregnant. Six-week bans on abortion have been struck down each time they have been challenged. Courts in states like Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa, Ohio and Tennessee have blocked those states’ bans, upholding decades of court precedent that prohibits states from restricting access to abortion before viability.

So why are these states wasting time, energy and resources amid a global health and economic crisis on an issue that has been so clearly decided? Because state abortion bans, anti-abortion constitutional amendments and medically unnecessary abortion restrictions were designed to bring abortion before the Supreme Court, hoping that they have a friendlier court with the addition of Justice Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettDemocratic Rep. Mondaire Jones calls on Breyer to retire Democrats roll out legislation to expand Supreme Court Pelosi says she won't bring bill to expand Supreme Court to the floor MORE. We knew this would happen — we saw a similar onslaught after Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughBiden's court-packing theater could tame the Supreme Court's conservatives Trump knocks CNN for 'completely false' report Gaetz was denied meeting NY Times beclowns itself by normalizing court-packing 'to balance the conservative majority' MORE was confirmed. 

But through all of these attacks, abortion has remained popular. The majority of Americans — 77 percent — say they do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. One in four women will get an abortion in her lifetime.

On the federal level, the 2020 election was a mandate for sexual and reproductive health and rights. But while the White House, House and Senate are now led by people who believe in access to abortion and health care for all, on the state level (due in large part to gerrymandering and voter suppression), majorities hostile to reproductive health and rights now control 29 state legislatures. Emboldened by those state-level victories, they’ve grabbed the levers of power and are unraveling the public health safety net across the country. 

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The same politicians who championed these abortion bans have spent the past year pushing back on scientific guidelines that will keep people safe and alive during a pandemic. They talk a big game about not infringing on personal freedoms when it comes to masks, but they’ve not hesitated when it comes to telling pregnant women what to do with their bodies. This isn’t about health — it’s about control. 

If these bans are allowed to stand, who will suffer the most? The same people who are always harmed during public health crises in a country where systemic racism leads to disparate outcomes. During the COVID-19 crisis, Black women, Latinas, Indigenous women, transgender and gender nonconforming people and people with low incomes have disproportionately been infected, died and lost their jobs and economic security. While they’ve been labeled essential workers, their rights have been attacked and they’ve been left by their leaders to fend for themselves.

They’re the same people who abortion restrictions harm the most. And even without egregious bans like Arkansas’s, for too many people abortion is already out of reach because of racist restrictions like the Hyde Amendment. As our partners in the Reproductive Justice movement have long asserted, a right without access is meaningless. As Planned Parenthood leaders, we will work every day to bridge abortion rights — and support of those rights — with access. We hear thousands of stories that connect the dots between the fights: for abortion access, for racial justice and for health equity. They’re an urgent reminder of why we need policies that reflect people’s desire for freedom to make decisions about their bodies, their health and their future. 

We need our leaders in Washington to be ready to fight right alongside us. 

Alexis McGill Johnson is the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Gloria Pedro is the regional manager of Public Policy and Organizing for Arkansas and Oklahoma, Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes.