The fight over abortion rights is getting tangled up in the battle against the coronavirus, with conservative states moving to restrict access to the procedure by classifying it as nonessential.
Officials in Texas, Mississippi and Ohio argue abortion is an elective procedure that should be halted so masks and gloves, which are in short supply, can be preserved for health workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
“The truth is abortion, for the most part, is an elective procedure that can be done later,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday during a live interview on Facebook with a conservative advocacy group.
But abortion rights advocates argue the procedure is essential and time-sensitive, and clinics are following guidelines to conserve personal protective equipment.
“We certainly understand governors’ desires to limit nonessential health care right now in the middle of a pandemic,” said the Very Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, a professional association for abortion providers.
“However, abortion is essential health care. It’s not something that can be put off indefinitely like a knee replacement or something,” she added.
The global shortage of masks and gloves is a major concern for health workers who need to stay healthy to treat the influx of coronavirus patients expected in the coming weeks and months. In response, several states have issued directives telling providers to cancel elective procedures such as dental work and colonoscopies that require the use of personal protective equipment.
But officials in Texas, Mississippi and Ohio are the only ones to publicly classify abortions as nonessential and say they should be halted during the pandemic. There are exemptions for when the mother’s life is at risk.
In Texas, providers not complying with the restrictions, laid out in an executive order issued last week by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), could face fines of up to $1,000 or 180 days in jail.
All providers in Texas have stopped providing surgical and medical abortions as of this week.
“Our clinic staff had to cancel over 150 appointments,” said Amy Hagstrom-Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which runs three abortion clinics in Texas.
“They listened to patients sobbing and witnessed their feelings of helplessness, sometimes even resorting to begging for the abortion they needed. Our patients deserve better,” she added.
Hagstrom-Miller and Ragsdale both said their organizations would help patients get abortions out of state.
Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood, Whole Woman’s Health, the Center for Reproductive Rights and other abortion providers filed a lawsuit against Abbott on Wednesday night asking a district court to block the order.
In all, there are 22 clinics that provide abortions in Texas that could be impacted by the executive order.
The moves by those states run counter to guidance released last week by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) that abortion should be considered essential.
“Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care,” ACOG and other groups wrote in the guidance.
“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,” they added.
All three states moving to ban abortion during the coronavirus outbreak have also passed restrictions in recent years aimed at severely reducing access to the procedure.
Lawmakers in Mississippi passed a 15-week abortion ban last year that was eventually blocked by a federal appeals court. In Ohio, lawmakers passed a law last year, also blocked by a federal judge, that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks.
All three states have waiting periods on abortion procedures.
The issue of abortion access during a pandemic is complicated by the fact that no one knows just how long it is going to last. It’s also not clear when the shortage of personal protective equipment will subside, but for now it is being exacerbated by other countries that are also battling the coronavirus.
In Ohio, Attorney General Dave Yost sent letters to three abortion clinics ordering them to “immediately stop performing nonessential and elective surgical abortions.”
However, all clinics in Ohio are still offering abortions, arguing that they are essential health care services.
“From our standpoint, we know abortions are an essential surgery,” said Iris Harvey, president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, which did not receive one of the letters. She added her clinics are following guidelines on preserving personal protective equipment.
Preterm, Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region’s Cincinnati Surgical Center and Women’s Med Center in Dayton, which all received the letters from Yost, are still open and offering surgical abortions.
In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said Tuesday that abortions would be halted in the state to conserve medical supplies.
"We'll take whatever action we need to protect not only the lives of unborn children but also the lives of anyone who may contract this particular virus," Reeves said. "[I] don't know any specifics, so I'm not saying they are currently operating. I just simply don't know. ... We'll take whatever necessary actions."
The state’s sole abortion clinic — the Jackson Women’s Health Organization — said on Wednesday it is still open and seeing patients.
Anti-abortion advocates wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday asking him to tell abortion clinics to cease operations and donate their protective equipment to the coronavirus response.
However, while the Trump administration has released guidance urging providers to postpone elective surgeries, it has not specifically mentioned abortion, and a spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Democratic administrations in some states, including New Jersey and Virginia, are explicitly saying that abortion should remain available and be considered essential during the pandemic.