With the global Coronavirus pandemic now in its seventh week, and lockdowns covering a third of the global population having been in place for about as long, it seems obvious to state that the virus has had a huge impact upon people’s everyday lives. From stay at home orders permitting people to go outside only for essential reasons, to economic recessions leaving millions more unemployed and without regular income, the effects of this unprecedented outbreak have intruded into almost every part of modern life.
The United States, unsurprisingly, seems to have become a focal point for how it has responded to the global crisis, with fundamental tensions between States’ rights with those of the Federal Government having been brought to the fore. One of the most obvious and dire consequences of this battle is how it has manifested into an intense conflict over the long-contentious issue of women’s right to access abortions.
Since March, several states including Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have introduced bans on abortions, deeming them "nonessential medical procedures" (Forbes 12/4/20) and as such grouping them into the same category as leisure activities and other 'nonessential' businesses. This categorisation in itself is problematic as it implies the consequences of a child being forced onto a mother are not serious and detrimental enough to warrant an abortion procedure being ‘essential’. This is more worrying in the context of recent economic hardships that mean for some of these vulnerable women an abortion will be more essential than ever.
In Texas, for example, Republican governor Greg Abbot ordered a halt to “all surgeries and procedures that are not immediately medically necessary”, including all abortions where the woman’s life isn’t in immediate danger. In order to justify this decision as wholly a result of the pandemic, the state’s Attorney General Ken Paxton argued that the decision was to ‘preserve protective gear and other resources’ to fight the Coronavirus. If this is the case, why then have the abortion providers themselves stated that administering the oral medication ‘requires no protective equipment’ (it is a viable option up to 11 weeks into a pregnancy)? Instead, this forces these vulnerable patients to either travel out of state for the procedure (and thereby create a higher risk of infection and transmission) or attempt to have an abortion by other, more dangerous and highly traumatic, means. Approached from the angle of mitigating transmissions, surely it would be better to have one single appointment for an abortion as opposed to the numerous contacts needed for pre-natal and antenatal appointments. Even these difficult choices are limited to those who have the means to afford to travel and pay for procedures elsewhere, meaning that those suffering from financial hardship, who in the US are disproportionately ethnic minorities, are more severely impacted by these blanket bans.
Although the executives in these states have issued these orders under the pretence of safeguarding the public, many medical associations and healthcare professionals have publicly voiced opposition. The American Medical association, as well as ’18 states’ (According to NPR) became involved in legal challenges to overturn the Texas ban. In addition to this, in March the Guttmacher Institute showed how this response to COVID-19 poses a wide range of health crises, impacting vulnerable groups such as those needing HIV/AIDS medication, fertility treatment, and contraception as well as abortion services.
Perhaps most worryingly, the states which have implemented “temporary” abortion bans (ie. they are currently in place under the assumption that once lockdowns are lifted so too will these measures) have a longer history of challenging the Roe vs Wade landmark ruling from 1973 which guaranteed a women’s right to an abortion until the point of foetal viability. As reported in a 'Business Insider' article from May 2019, the Republican controlled Legislatures and Governorships of States like Ohio, Missouri, Alabama and Mississippi introduced some of the ‘most restrictive’ abortion laws in the US, explicitly challenging the Roe V Wade ruling. These same states have, over many years, introduced measures such as mandated counselling and expensive regulations for abortion clinics, thereby significantly restricting access to abortions in ways other than legal legislation at the expense of using psychological manipulation to try and change women’s minds.
This ‘soft’ use of state government power seen for years in these conservative strongholds does not mean that legislation to restrict, ban and criminally punish those who have an abortion has not attempted and successfully been passed despite the 1973 federal ruling. The toughest of these new states’ laws has been in Alabama, where Republican Governor Kay Ivy has sought to undermine women’s rights by classifying abortion as a Class A felony, earning a maximum prison sentence of 99 years. Obviously, the abortion debate is one which has always brought out heartfelt arguments on both sides, over issues which impact on fundamental aspects of life, health and wellbeing. Here, however, it is obvious that these self-proclaimed ‘pro-life’ advocates care more for the lives of those who could not yet survive outside of a women’s uterus than for human beings who have carefully considered their situation (and thus decided to preserve their own quality of life) by making informed decisions about their own bodies.
It seems obvious, then, that the ‘temporary’ bans on women’s rights to access abortions are not an isolated measure which is motivated in order to halt the spread of Coronavirus, as other states have not felt the necessity to implement the same restrictions. Rather, it is evident that these bans are mainly political developments based upon ideological motivations, forming only one part of a much larger process of a concerted resistance to Roe V Wade by exploiting any means and opportunity available. At the danger of drifting into the world of dystopian fiction, these developments are reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s novel 'The Handmaid’s Tale', wherein women’s rights are gradually restricted for their ‘own protection’, and are unsurprisingly never restored. Now the imagined future of Atwood is a long way off, but the bans in the US illustrate how dangerous precedents can easily be set when circumstances allow for ‘temporary’ and ‘unprecedented’ measures to be invoked, always under the guise of ‘protecting’ those who will almost certainly become those who will suffer.