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Commentary Abortion

I Had Trouble Confirming COVID-19 Abortion Policies—and I’m a Reporter

Dennis Carter

Dedicating entire workdays to clarifying state policy on abortion care often left me with one troubling question: Can the layperson figure this out for themselves?

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

I didn’t fully understand the chaotic state of abortion access during COVID-19 until I found myself pleading with a state health department spokesperson at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday to tell me, in plain language, whether procedural abortion had been temporarily banned in their state.

It’s been part of my job for the past month to figure out which state officials have used the COVID-19 outbreak as an excuse to suspend abortion access. Early in the morning, late at night, and on weekends, I’ve updated Rewire.News’ state-by-state tracker on COVID-19 abortion bans, whenever new state orders came out and when health departments would confirm their policy on whether abortion is considered “nonessential” health care—and thus a restricted medical procedure.

But dedicating entire workdays to clarifying state policy on abortion care often left me with an alarming question: If I—a news editor who has reported on reproductive health policy for five years—am having this much trouble accessing this information, how will pregnant people living in the state be able to figure it out?

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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I thought of what people seeking care were going through. They surely don’t have the time or resources to methodically parse state policy on medical procedures. They have jobs or are struggling with unemployment, kids, and bills to pay, on top of the stress of navigating life on lockdown.

Despite countless hours spent scrolling through state government websites, emailing and calling clinics, advocates, and state health departmentsalong with scouring local news outlets covering state-level COVID-19 responsesI was unable to include many states in the Rewire.News tracker.

Not every state policy required a full-blown investigation. Sometimes the response was swift and clear. When New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) issued a ban on elective medical procedures, the executive order explicitly exempted family planning services and abortion care from any restrictions. The Democratic Attorneys General Association sent out a press release with statements by attorneys general from states including New York, California, Colorado, and Hawaii, confirming they would protect access during the pandemic.

But this clear, concise information was the exception.

A health department spokesperson in a bright blue state refused to go on-the-record about the state’s abortion policy during COVID-19. Yes, abortion services will be available, they said, “but you didn’t hear it from me.”

In another state with few anti-choice laws, a health department official wouldn’t say whether the state considered abortion care “essential” amid the pandemic. It would be “up to the doctor,” they said over and over. I asked if that meant a person could access abortion if they wanted to.

“That will be up to the doctor,” they repeated.

“So yes?”

“It’s up to the doctor.”

I’m not relaying these exchanges as an indictment of public officials likely working overtime to answer questions about uncertain policy changes during a whirlwind moment.

Extracting information from public health officials in the early days of the country’s coronavirus outbreak was a window into how abortion care is stigmatized as somehow outside of legitimate health care—something most health departments weren’t keen to talk about. Considering the relentless pushback from anti-abortion activists, it’s no wonder I could almost hear health officials groan over email when having to address questions about abortion access in their state. Most health officials wouldn’t use the word “abortion,” and almost every state order on “nonessential” or “elective” procedures failed to mention abortion by name.

The politically savvy anti-choice movement seized on COVID-19 as an opportunity to deploy classic bad faith arguments about preserving personal protective equipment and hospital beds. Even if the movement’s tactics didn’t accomplish its stated goal of permanently banning abortion, the political tug-of-war was enough to leave people unsure about seeking care.

Maryland was a revealing case study. The confusion began after Gov. Larry Hogan (R), one of the country’s most proactive governors during the COVID-19 outbreak, seemed to suggest at a March 23 press conference that abortion care might not be considered essential, and then told a reporter that his office wasn’t responsible for deciding whether abortion care was still permitted. When the top state official—a Republican governor, albeit one who hasn’t pushed anti-abortion policy and allows pro-choice laws to go into effect—expresses uncertainty about the legality of abortion services, we listen. 

I sought clarity from Maryland’s health department a few times over the next week, leaving voicemails and sending emails to any contact I could find. No reply. A couple reproductive rights sources said they were looking into the matter. That meant we classified Maryland as a “contentious,” or an unresolved, state in the Rewire.News COVID-19 abortion policy tracker. Finally, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland reached out and confirmed that abortion care would continue in the state. We changed Maryland to an “accessible” state in the tracker. 

Then there was Alaska. On April 8, the Associated Press reported that the state had included abortion among medical procedures that could be delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic; meanwhile Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson (R) had just signed an amicus brief in support of Texas’ anti-abortion COVID-19 response. Alaska, by the way, is led by virulently anti-choice Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R).

After days of emailing and calling various divisions of the state government, I was told by the ACLU of Alaska on April 28 that procedural abortions were still happening in the state—and that, in fact, the temporary ban had lasted less than a week. The next day, I received the same news from Alaska’s health department. Evidently, the state’s original COVID-19 mandate on essential health care had been superseded by a new policy, meaning Rewire.News had unfortunately been providing readers with outdated information about abortion access in Alaska for more than a week. I hope pregnant people in Alaska were able to find that information sooner.

Of course, no state was tougher to track than Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) seized on the chance to halt legal abortion on March 22, as soon as state officials began crafting public health policy for COVID-19. Understanding exactly whether abortion care was permitted in Texas over the next month required a team effort at Rewire.News, as a Trump-appointed circuit court judge seemed determined to have the last word.

Abortion would be permitted in Texas for a few days, then banned. The ban would be lifted, then reimplemented. Staying up-to-date on the legality of abortion care in Texas became a daily job for Rewire.News‘ legal experts and me. I’m guessing most abortion patients don’t have teams of journalists evaluating court orders for them. No wonder they were “frustrated and exhausted,” traveling upwards of 15 hours for care in what could be a harrowing preview of a post-Roe country.

It’s no secret that confusing and intimidating abortion patients is a key goal of the anti-choice movement. Anti-choice activists and lawmakers have for years pushed policiesincluding unenforceable bans on the local levelthat intentionally undermine public understanding of reproductive health care and its availability. COVID-19 health policy was the ultimate manifestation of this strategy, using the fear and uncertainty of a pandemic to cut off access to essential health care.

With a second wave of COVID-19 predicted in the fall, we can expect anti-choice state officials to once again unleash bad faith arguments to limit or ban abortion care, knowing there are now enough right-wing federal judges to affirm such policies. The anti-choice movement is nothing if not persistent.

Meanwhile, people will scramble to exercise their constitutional right to abortion care however possible, and while they still can.

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