by: Robin Loeb
The coronavirus pandemic has spawned a new rash of anti-abortion measures in states led by Republican governors. Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas have all imposed restrictions on abortion during the pandemic, arguing that the suspension of access to abortions preserves critically needed medical supplies. Those bans were challenged and federal district court judges in nearly all of those states granted injunctive relief against the orders, temporarily halting the bans. Judge Lee Yeakel, a district court judge in Austin, Texas (and a George W. Bush appointee) wrote that the United States Supreme Court spoke clearly when it ruled that there can be no outright ban on a woman’s right to a pre-fetal-viability abortion. Nevertheless, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily stayed the district court in a 2-1 decision, thus reviving the ban. The Fifth Circuit ruled that any abortion "not medically necessary to preserve the life or health" of the patient was banned as part of the state's edict suspending "non-essential" medical procedures amid the coronavirus pandemic. While a US Supreme Court decision on various recent restrictive abortion legislation is expected this summer, an emergency appeal involving the Texas ban could accelerate the timing of an abortion-related decision. More executive orders and more challenges are sure to follow. Meanwhile, Democratic governors, like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf, did not include abortion in their state orders banning nonessential procedures, exposing them to criticism from anti-abortion groups.
Lost in most of the political analysis of this issue is the fact that very few medical resources are consumed by the standard abortion procedure. They are typically performed at clinics, not hospitals; complications requiring emergency room visits are rare; and, the equipment used is most often two pairs of gloves and a reusable face mask. Managing a pregnancy, even without complications, requires repeat visits, exams and tests at medical facilities, requiring gloves, gowns and masks.
Of course, there are always unintended consequences as a result of endeavors to manipulate the legal system. Certainly pregnancies resulting in babies with severe fetal abnormalities will ultimately tax an already exhausted medical system whose constituents do not enjoy universal healthcare and whose poorest participants are the least likely to be insured in a fashion that would provide the best care for the new mother and compromised infant. And in a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is development, pro-choice groups are calling on states to waive some abortion restrictions pertaining to the provision of the abortion pill, asking that the pill be made available to women at their homes. This means women could take the abortion pill without traveling to clinics, thereby reducing the chance that either the patient or the healthcare worker would be exposed to the coronavirus, and also preserving the medical equipment supply that the abortion ban proponents use as the basis for their embargo.