Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and CEO of Whole Women’s Health. Miller was the lead plaintiff in suing Texas to stop newly passed extremely restrictive laws designed to force the closure of abortion providers. In 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that those laws were unconstitutional. See the post “Cautious Optimism after a U.S. Supreme Court Decision”
It’s happened again. All reputable commentators are agreed that the medical and social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic will disproportionately affect the poor and people of color. Yet politicians in Texas, Ohio, Mississippi and elsewhere are seizing upon the excuse of the pandemic to make further attacks against the reproductive rights of the most vulnerable populations. Texas, for example, has banned all abortions other than to save the life of the woman on the grounds that abortion is a “non-essential surgical procedure.” First, this ignores the fact that an increasing number of abortions are not surgical at all; rather, they are medical. Moreover, the “non-essential” designation by the Texas attorney general flies in the face of the opinion of the experts of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, who have issued a statement warning against calling abortion non-essential. On the contrary, these highly-respected physicians say that abortion should be viewed as “an essential component of comprehensive health care” and as such should not be subject to COVID-19 restrictions. But of course, the Texas lawmakers and their ilk are less concerned with the public health of their most vulnerable citizens than they are with pushing through increasingly extreme anti-abortion measures.
Amy Hagstrom Miller (pictured above) is the founder and CEO of the Whole Women’s Health group of clinics, three of which are in Texas. Ms. Miller said that her clinics were forced to cancel more than 150 scheduled abortion appointments in one day, despite the tearful pleas of desperate women who needed the procedure, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles because many abortion providers in Texas have been forced out of business by the state’s TRAP laws.
Ms. Miller and other reproductive rights advocates and health professionals have noted that it is absurd for the Texas officials to claim that their bans on abortion are intended to free up medical personnel and facilities to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. If it weren’t for draconian restrictions on abortion providers (insisting that the pills used for medical abortion be administered by a physician in person, demanding that patients make two or even three visits to a clinic for ultrasounds and anti-abortion propaganda lectures, for example), clinics could provide early (up to 11 weeks) abortions with one quick visit. Indeed, as some physicians have observed, the procedure for administering early medical abortion could even be handled online. Thus, the rational non-political response would have been to suspend enforcement of the TRAP laws for the duration of the pandemic.
Many women are likely to think that the coming months are not a good time to have another child. Because of the economic impact of the pandemic, which has already caused massive unemployment and especially affects poor and working-class women, the demand for abortion will probably increase. In addition, there are reports that pregnant women are at higher than average risk from COVID-19, especially if they have hypertension, which often occurs during pregnancy, or gestational diabetes. There are also predictions that the pandemic could last for as long as 18 months, particularly if there are two or three waves of infection. In that case some health care systems in underserved regions would be hard-pressed to handle routine medical matters such as prenatal care and childbirth.
In Ms. Miller’s words: “Abortion is essential health care, and it is a time-sensitive service, most especially now in this public health crisis when many people are already financially insecure and futures are uncertain.” She added: “We cannot sit idly by while the state is forcing Texans to be pregnant against their will” (quoted in the Huffington Post). On March 25, Women’s Whole Health once again sued Texas in federal court. We can only hope that they will be successful. But time is running out for those women whose appointments have been canceled. They will be forced to spend more time, energy, and money in an attempt to secure the procedure in another state that adheres to the ACOG recommendation that abortion be considered an essential part of health care.
As of this writing, it seems that the epidemic has run its course in China with a death toll of under 3,300. In the U.S. projections are grim. A March 25 report from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation gave an estimate of 40,000 to 160,000 deaths, assuming a nationwide lockdown. One of the reasons for the human tragedy that’s being played out in the U.S. is that many politicians have refused to respond promptly and appropriately to the pandemic. Instead, they see COVID-19 as an opportunity to advance their anti-women agenda by attacking reproductive rights.