Fighting for Abortion in a Pandemic

The movement we need to get out of this nightmare

N. Jolras

A Chicago abortion provider reports on the right using the COVID-19 crisis to further attack abortion access. But the pandemic is also exposing the possibilities for safe, accessible reproductive health care – if we fight for it. 

At a time when tens of millions of people across the United States are scrambling to keep themselves safe and healthy amidst an unprecedented pandemic, millions of people who can get pregnant are experiencing a panic beyond the threat of viral illness–will they be able to get an abortion during the COVID-19 crisis?

Unsurprisingly, anti-abortion groups and politicians are using the current crisis to further restrict abortion access, a common political play used by the right in times of crisis when people are at their most vulnerable. At the time of this publication, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi have deemed abortion a “non-essential” service, though how they will enforce these make-shift bans remains to be seen.

Determining which industries are vital to life and which must close to slow the spread of COVID-19 should not be taken lightly–it is a matter of life and death in more ways than one, as millions of workers are losing their incomes, and food and housing insecurity is ballooning. As hard-hit states are building field hospitals in parking lots and parks to triage and hold symptomatic patients overflowing from existing healthcare facilities, non-urgent and non-emergency care and procedures are being indefinitely postponed by healthcare systems to keep healthy folks at home and to free up their staff to care for those who need it most.

Most abortions are by definition elective–you must choose to have one, or else your pregnancy will continue. The question of choice has historically been key in the abortion debate, and reasserts itself now, as state governors determine whether or not having abortion is an “essential” service for individuals during lockdown orders in a national emergency.

Obtaining an abortion in the US can be panic-inducing at any time due to record numbers of abortion bans and restrictions passed by state governments in recent years. Then there’s the recent Supreme Court case, June Medical Services vs Russo, challenging abortion access and reproductive freedom at the federal level, to be decided later this year. Navigating the confusing web of US abortion restrictions is a challenge for regular people under “normal” circumstances (sidebar: “normal” in the United States is not fucking normal).

Strengthened by a joint statement signed by the American College of Obstretrics and Gynecology and other leading US reproductive health professional organizations, Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio have maintained that they will continue to provide abortions as an essential service while Texas abortion clinics are suing the state for the ban.

In their signature move, anti-choice politicians also saw fit to delay the passage of a so-called federal “stimulus package” (which will mostly provide hundreds of billions of dollars for a corporate slush fund) until it contained explicit language banning use of funds to support healthcare organizations that provide abortion services (i.e. Planned Parenthood), as well as a Hyde Amendment clause. Also maintaining their consistency, the Democrats refused to fight to protect reproductive rights for low-income folks, and the legislation was passed.

Just as we have only begun to see the ravages of COVID-19 in the United States, the exploitation of the crisis to restrict or completely eliminate abortion access will only continue in ways we can predict, as we await the statements of other anti-abortion governors on services in their states, and ways we can only imagine, such as temporary clinic closures in hostile states becoming permanent or worse. Therefore it is essential that we fight against “temporary” restrictions now, not just for those in urgent need of procedures but for the future of US abortion access.

Despite an equally infuriating response from the British government to the pandemic, in the UK there was a momentary glimpse of what a humane government would do during a public health crisis of this magnitude–make abortion more accessible. On Monday March 23rd, for approximately 5 hours on the Department of Health and Social Care website, national abortion laws were temporarily changed to allow early abortion patients to take abortion medications at home instead of requiring a provider to dispense the initial medication at a clinic. But the change was abruptly reversed, leaving a hollow explanation that it had been “published in error.” 

Screen capture of the British Department of Health and Social Care.

But what can we gain from that glimpse?

We can envision what it might look like during a global pandemic if abortion was free and available on demand. Cisgender women and trans folks would be able to take abortion medications safely inside their homes without be subjected to 24-hour waiting periods, false and manipulative anti-abortion rhetoric, forced viewing of ultrasounds, travel out of state or country, plagues of clinic protestors, expensive clinic fees or even a trip to the clinic! Abortions would be less disruptive of a person’s life and their ability to live it before, during, and afterward, free of the forced shame and undue burdens heaped on someone trying to control their reproductive future.

It is essential that we fight against “temporary” restrictions now, not just for those in urgent need of procedures but for the future of US abortion access.

That vision of reproductive freedom is possible to achieve.

This pandemic is upending the status quo in countless ways, and creating opportunities for ordinary people to organize new movements to challenge oppressive systems which have been hurting and killing us for far longer than COVID-19 has. Self-isolation does not preclude mass organization, just look at the flurry of new mutual aid funds and volunteer networks blossoming overnight in communities finding ways to support themselves and show solidarity for others. Calls for work stoppages and rent strikes are lighting up across the global working class with simple demands including paid sick time, higher wages for essential industry workers, and adequate preventive and protective equipment.

Ordinary people are realizing the unique and unparalleled power they hold as a class in capitalist society, and they are learning to leverage it to save their lives and protect the health of their communities. Workers’ unions are setting a thrilling example of what can be accomplished through collective action. Library and teacher unions threatened mass call-offs to pressure lagging city governments to close libraries and schools. Nurse unions are demanding the release of prisoners to slow transmission and threatening their own work stoppage to obtain adequate protective equipment as nurses on the frontlines have already begun to die.

What could be accomplished if these fight backs were turned into enduring mass movements, connecting labor and housing issues to the fight for universal healthcare and reproductive justice?

Imagine if all healthcare workers, including abortion providers, were organized and could collectively use their power to demand adequate equipment, free testing for all, healthcare as a human right, and unrestricted access to abortion. Imagine if the health of our country and our planet weren’t at the mercy of a wealthy elite who disparage science and value profit over human lives.

Imagine a future where the next pandemic doesn’t delay someone’s abortion, doesn’t cause mass unemployment, doesn’t kill a single person.

Another world is possible, and there’s never been a better time to fight to win it.

Abortion Resources & Funds by State

Ohio:Women Have Options, Preterm

Oklahoma: Roe Fund

Louisiana:New Orleans Abortion Fund

Iowa:Iowa Abortion Access Fund, deProsse Access Fund of the Emma Goldman Clinic

Texas:Lilith Fund, Fund Texas Choice, Texas Equal Access Fund, Clinic Access Support Network

Mississippi:Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund

N. Jolras is an abortion provider in Chicago.