This is a dangerous new low: Some politicians are diverting precious government time and attention away from the COVID-19 pandemic to stop safe, legal access to abortion.
Politicians in Texas and other states are exploiting the pandemic to suspend access to abortion. The resulting confusion has sent patients scrambling to get care — forcing some to drive hundreds of miles to out-of-state health centers, and leaving others with few options, if any.
In reality, the chief public health concern during the COVID-19 pandemic — the need to stop the spread of infections — is made more difficult by restrictions on abortion. For example, states that require multiple, unnecessary visits to health centers subject both the patients and providers to additional exposure, increasing their risk of contracting the virus.
People are just trying to survive this crisis — including some struggling to make ends meet or to get through self-isolation with an abusive partner. They should not be forced to continue their pregnancies against their will.
If leaders want to improve abortion access, the key is to expand access to telemedicine and medication abortion. Telemedicine is a safe way for people who may live far from a health center to access safe, legal abortion. It also allows both clinicians and patients the ability to keep social distancing.
Here’s the timeline of anti-abortion politicians seizing on a crisis to try to impose abortion bans — and of the lawsuits to stop them.
The World Health Organization officially declares a pandemic as the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, spreads worldwide.
Suspending Elective Procedures
The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recommends that states and health care providers suspend non-essential medical, surgical, and dental procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The move is intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and preserve medical resources (including personal protective equipment) for health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
First Pandemic-Era Abortion Ban in Texas
Texas bans abortion during the crisis, characterizing it as “non-essential.”
The ban forces abortion providers across Texas to immediately cancel almost all appointments for safe, legal abortion — including 150 scheduled appointments at Whole Woman’s Health alone.
Anti-Abortion Groups Lobby HHS
Over 50 anti-abortion groups send a letter to federal Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar pressing him to urge public health officials nationwide to ban abortion services during the pandemic.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Lawyering Project file suit against the abortion ban in Texas.
Ohio Joins In
Ohio makes clear that the state interprets its March 17 non-essential surgery ban to prohibit all procedural abortions.
Iowa, Alabama, Oklahoma Target Abortion Access
In a statement to reporters, the Iowa governor’s office states that procedural abortions are included in the non-essential surgeries prohibited by the state’s March 26 ban.
Alabama imposes an abortion ban in its “non-essential” care policy with vague terms that could be used to criminalize abortion providers. Given the risk of licensure penalties and possible criminal indictment, abortion providers are forced to cancel abortions.
Oklahoma’s governor issues a “clarification” of the state’s March 24 non-essential surgery ban, explicitly singling out and prohibiting all abortion care.
Fighting Back, Racking Up Wins
Temporary Restraining Orders Won
A federal judge blocks the Alabama abortion ban after the ACLU and Alabama abortion providers filed suit. For now, abortion in Alabama is allowed to be treated like all other medical care, allowing physicians to provide abortion using their medical judgment.
Texas Abortion Ban Almost Blocked
After eight days without access to virtually all abortions in Texas, a federal judge blocks the state’s abortion ban. The decision raises hopes that abortion access will be reinstated. However, the ruling only lasts for less than 24 hours (see March 31).
Two More Lawsuits Brought
The Center for Reproductive Rights, PPFA, and Dechert LLP file a lawsuit to challenge Oklahoma’s abortion ban.
PPFA and the ACLU of Iowa on behalf of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, and Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, PLC on behalf of Emma Goldman Clinic file a lawsuit against Iowa challenging its procedural abortion ban.
Reproductive Health Champions Speak Out
New York Attorney General Letitia James, with 21 other state attorneys general, urge federal officials to make medication abortion more accessible during the pandemic without requiring in-person office visits that put patients and their families at risk.
Iowa: Abortion Access Restored
The parties reach an agreement allowing the provision of procedural abortion care in Iowa to resume.
Oklahoma: Some Abortion Access Restored
More than a week after Oklahoma banned abortion, a federal court allows some abortion services to resume.
A Ban in Tennessee
Tennessee bars people from accessing procedural abortions by categorizing them as “non-emergency” health care. The executive order allows for medication abortion, but the state has an existing ban on telehealth for medication abortion — which limits access to medication abortion in the state.
Texas Ping-Pongs Back Toward Abortion Access...
More than two weeks into a ban on most abortions in Texas — a federal court allows abortion providers in Texas to resume medication abortion and procedural abortions for patients who would be unable to access abortion due to their gestational age on April 22 (the day after the ban is set to expire).
But the relief again only lasts one day (see April 10).
...And Texas Ping-Pongs Back to Banning Abortion
For the third time in a month, abortion is banned in Texas, with the health of the pregnant person the only exception. A Fifth Circuit ruling forces Texas abortion providers to, again, cancel appointments — and abortion is largely inaccessible in the state.
Arkansas Prohibits Procedural Abortion
Meanwhile, Arkansas Health Department inspectors deliver a cease-and-desist order to the state’s only procedural abortion provider, asserting that it was in violation of the Department’s April 3 prohibition on elective surgeries and demanding that the clinic immediately cease all procedural abortions.
Lawsuits to Protect Abortion Access in Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee
The Center for Reproductive Rights files a lawsuit to prevent Louisiana from including abortion in the state’s March 21 order to postpone non-essential medical procedures during the pandemic. The lawsuit comes after anti-abortion officials in Louisiana took the first steps toward leveraging the order to ban abortion.
Because of the lawsuit, abortion remains accessible in Louisiana.
- The ACLU and O’Melveny and Myers LLP challenge Arkansas’ procedural abortion ban.
The federal district court blocks Arkansas’ ban the same day.
Texas Access Partially Restored — But It Doesn't Last
The Fifth Circuit backs down from its April 10 order that allowed Texas to eliminate virtually all abortion in the state.
It is the third time that relief has been granted to abortion providers and their patients in Texas. This time, the relief lasts less than a week. For six days, the ruling permits medication abortion and procedural abortions for pregnant Texans whose gestational age would exceed the state’s legal limit by April 22.
From March 23 to April 14, Texas’s abortion ban sends so many abortion-seeking Texans across state lines that the number of patients at some clinics in three nearby states increases more than seven fold.
People who were denied access to abortion include those with diagnosed fetal anomalies and some who were already at health centers waiting for their appointments.
Court Blocks Tennessee's Abortion Ban
A federal court says Tennessee abortion providers can resume procedural abortion.
Texas Bans Medication Abortion Again
For the fourth time in just three weeks, the 5th Circuit rules in favor of Texas’ abortion ban, reversing the lower court ruling that had allowed medication abortion and allowing abortions only if the patient’s gestational age would exceed the state’s legal limit.
Texas Ban Ends
After over four weeks where nearly all access to abortion was banned in Texas, abortion is allowed to resume in the state.
Arkansas Ban: Round 2
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals lets Arkansas’ ban on most procedural abortions take effect, tossing out the district court’s April 13 restraining order.
Ohio Ban Stays Blocked
A federal judge's injunction continues to block the Ohio Department of Health from using its executive order on the COVID-19 response to ban abortion access.
West Virginia: Ninth Lawsuit Filed to Protect Access
Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, the only abortion clinic in West Virginia, files a lawsuit requesting a court order to clarify that the West Virginia's executive order should not halt abortions in the state.
Tennessee Order Stays Blocked
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rules that Tennessee providers must be allowed to provide procedural abortions using their medical judgment.
Where We Are Now
Due to these lawsuits, some access to abortion remained in the states mentioned above during the month of April. However, in some of these states, that access was taken away multiple times.
As April turned to May, the governors in almost all of these states lifted the executive orders they had used to ban abortion and replaced them with different rules.
As a result of these changes and the court orders, the pandemic-era abortion bans in all nine states where lawsuits were filed — Arkansas, Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia — are not in effect.
What Comes Next
While this first round abortion bans based on states’ COVID-19 response policies seems to largely be coming to an end, that is far from the case for the pandemic itself. We can expect to see anti-abortion politicians continue to try and exploit this public health crisis to achieve their ultimate goal of banning abortion.
Lend a Helping Hand
A pandemic is not an opportunity to score political points. It’s time to put people’s health first. All of us deserve access to reproductive health care — including abortion.
Help win the fight for health care that gives us control over our own lives and futures.