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Commentary Health Systems

Even in Places With Accessible Abortion Care, the Coronavirus Is Drastically Affecting Services

Steph Black

For people seeking abortion care in the D.C. area, support systems won't be readily available during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For continuing coverage of how COVID-19 is affecting reproductive health, check out our Special Report.  

The coronavirus, and the actions required to protect against it, will likely erode access to abortion care—even in a place like Washington, D.C., a hub with few restrictions, an abortion support infrastructure, and providers across the region.

Washington, D.C. has eight facilities that provide abortion care, and there are more in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs (including a couple of clinics that provide abortion care later in pregnancy). Because of this relative abundance, patients from all over the United States, especially east of the Mississippi, flock to the D.C. area to get the care they need, particularly for later abortion services.

But with the domino effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m concerned about patients being able to access abortion care. D.C., Maryland, and Virginia are all in a state of emergency. Gatherings are being postponed or canceled altogether, and Metro and Amtrak have already begun reducing service, making it even harder for abortion patients to get around. It could be only a matter of time before the area’s hospitals and medical providers are completely overwhelmed.

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This will not be a crisis unique to D.C. residents and people coming here for abortion care. Other areas with abortion clinics are experiencing the same panic during the COVID-19 outbreak, and other medical fields and practices will face similar challenges.

Abortion care, especially further along into pregnancy, is expensive. While abortion medication, which can be taken early in a pregnancy, and in-office abortion procedures in the first half of a pregnancy are not cheap, the surgical methods that are used in the third trimester can cost as much as$15,000.

The D.C. area is fortunate to have one of the most well-funded abortion funds in the nation, the DC Abortion Fund. Last year, they provided more than $300,000 to help cover costs for abortion care patients. Complementing their services is a robust network of volunteers that help get patients the care they need. That network will be hobbled during the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving many patients on their own.

As one of these practical support volunteers, I escort patients, sometimes by car and sometimes by foot, between their hotels and the local clinic. I make sure a patient gets the care they need at the clinic and gets home safe without having to pay for transportation, so that the abortion fund money can be used elsewhere. I’ve met women who have traveled from as far away as Illinois to access the care they need in the D.C. area—sometimes with their children, as they couldn’t find childcare.

My practical support network has begun to only given us the most necessary patients to escort. All clinic escorting has halted, leaving patients to wade through loud and violent anti-abortion protesters on their own. These decisions were justified to help mitigate the spread of the disease and to flatten the curve, but they leave me worried. Without volunteers, and if clinics end up having to shut their doors for days or weeks, people will not be able to obtain the abortion care they need.

What will happen when more people are required to quarantine? What will happen to the folks who can’t leave for two weeks, who will have trouble purchasing pregnancy tests, let alone accessing abortion care? And what will happen if people are unable to enter medical facilities that might soon look like war zones?

In addition to being a practical support volunteer, I’m a clinic escort. Later this month, I was supposed to attend our local Clinic Defense Task Force’s annual meeting. This weekend, I was supposed to begin training to become an abortion doula, someone who aids patients during their abortions. And later this month, I was supposed to participate in a training with my abortion fund. All of these events have been canceled or postponed.

We know what will happen if folks can’t access safe abortions. It certainly won’t mean that fewer people try. Rather, it will mean they will take this procedure into their own hands. Before Roe v. Wade gave us the legal right to have an abortion, women threw themselves down stairs, sat in scalding hot water, consumed herbs and cleaning supplies, and inserted sharp objects into their uteruses. Today, self-managed abortion can be much safer, but it isn’t always. In Louisiana, which might soon have only one abortion clinic, a pregnant friend of mine drank tea she bought online and hemorrhaged. She spent a week in the hospital.

Don’t just wash your hands and practice physical distancing. Consider all the ways you can help. Reach out to your local clinics and ask what they need, especially the independent providers. See if there are practical support networks that need volunteers, or nurses that could use a gift card to a coffee shop. And—if you or the people you live with are not high risk—call your abortion fund and offer your car, your home, and your time to patients. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken enough lives. Don’t let the pregnant people who can’t access abortion care be next.

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