In preparation for an impending influx of coronavirus patients, a number of states are ordering health care facilities to cancel elective procedures, such as cosmetic surgery, to preserve vital resources.
Some red states are now taking advantage of this moment to crack down on abortion.
On Friday, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sent letters to three of the state’s abortion clinics, ordering them to stop providing “non-essential surgical abortions,” which it defined as those that could be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of a patient. On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warned abortion providers in the state that they must postpone all abortions that are not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.
“No one is exempt from the governor’s executive order on medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures, including abortion providers,” Paxton said in a press release. “Those who violate the governor’s order will be met with the full force of the law.”
Failure to comply with the order may result in penalties of up to $1,000 or 180 days of jail time.
Reproductive rights groups are protesting the bans, noting that abortion is a time-sensitive procedure. Currently, Texas and Ohio prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with few exceptions. Many women already have to drive long distances to seek care. If women are forced to wait additional periods of time, or need to travel out of state, abortion access may be put out of reach.
“Abortion is a procedure where time is of the essence and cannot be delayed without profound consequences,” said Aimee Arrambide, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “State leaders should ensure that Texans who need care can access it with the least amount of obstacles and medically unnecessary visits possible.”
Other states that have prohibited elective procedures during the coronavirus outbreak, such as Massachusetts, Washington State and Michigan, exempted abortion services. It is unclear if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting nonessential, elective medical procedures includes abortion. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has called for all elective surgeries and nonessential medical, surgical and dental procedures to be delayed during the outbreak. But its recommendations do not specifically mention abortion. CMS did not respond to repeated requests to clarify its position.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has also urged leaders not to categorize abortion as an elective, non-urgent procedure.
“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,” it said in a statement. “The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person’s life, health, and well-being.”
The National Abortion Federation asked all state and federal leaders to treat outpatient abortion providers as essential businesses.
“An individual and family decide to end a pregnancy for a complex constellation of reasons that include the impact of pregnancy and birth on their health, ability to work, and strained economic circumstances,” the group said in a statement. “These are conditions that do not go away — and are likely heightened — in pandemic conditions. Denying or deferring abortion care places an immediate burden on patients, their families, and the health system, and can have profound and lasting consequences.”
There’s plenty of research on what happens when women are stopped from accessing abortion. The longer they have to wait, the more expensive the cost. And while abortion is very safe, the chance of complications gets higher as more time goes on.
The Turnaway Study, a longitudinal study of women who presented for abortion care at 30 facilities throughout the U.S., offers probably the most revealing look at what happens to women who are unable to get abortions when they want them.
As Carole Joffe and David Cohen wrote in their recent book, “Obstacle Course,” women who are denied abortions “are worse off in almost every aspect of their lives than those who are able to obtain one. Looking at economics, women denied a wanted abortion have almost four times higher odds of being poor compared to women who get an abortion. They are also less likely to be employed and more likely to be on public assistance.”
The study also found that being denied an abortion has serious consequences for women’s health. Those who aren’t able to obtain a wanted abortion are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and complications from the end of pregnancy, including eclampsia and ― in rare cases ― death.
In a statement, the Abortion Care Reality Project said it was shameful that elected officials were attempting to hijack the coronavirus pandemic to continue their politically motivated attacks on abortion.
“Now is not the time to pursue dangerous political agendas by falsely characterizing abortion as an elective procedure that can be delayed for an undetermined amount of time,” the group wrote in a statement.
Julie Burkhart, the founder and CEO of Trust Women, which operates clinics in Kansas and Oklahoma, said that abortion access is already cratering under the pressure of coronavirus, as doctors are unable to travel to clinics to provide care.
“It’s unsettling that people who oppose abortion rights would take this crisis as an opportunity to do away with abortions,” she said. “Just because we’re in the middle of a pandemic doesn’t mean people don’t need abortions.”
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