Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Fighting Covid-19 and Protecting Abortion: These Actions Aren't Mutually Exclusive

By Vidushi (Ria) TripathiPublished June 1, 2020

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Certain states have attempted to classify abortion care as a non-essential service and ban it during the Covid-19 pandemic. Such actions can have drastic consequences for pregnant women. The healthcare industry must use technological tools to ensure that this essential service continues to be performed safely during the pandemic, and states must take action to preserve a woman's right to choose.

It is estimated that around 1.3 million unplanned pregnancies in the United States are terminated by an abortion every year, and the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to increase this number even more. Statewide lockdowns have restricted the ability to purchase contraceptives from clinics and pharmacies. Individuals may not feel safe traveling to such places, and those who are comfortable leaving home may face reduced operating hours and services. Shelter-in-place orders have also increased the prevalence of intimate partner violence which may include sexual assault. Such factors have exacerbated the need to provide safe abortion care to women that require them. 


However, some states have acted counterintuitively and made an effort to ban abortion services during the pandemic. The rise of Covid-19 cases and social distancing regulations has forced many states to temporarily cease their delivery of healthcare services that are considered non-essential. The primary purpose of such legislation is to conserve scarce medical resources, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), needed to serve Covid-19 patients. However, twelve states have also attempted to enact bans on abortion by including it within the non-essential services category. Abortion bans in Alaska, Iowa, Kentucky, West Virginia, Louisiana, and Mississippi were eventually removed, and abortion bans in Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama, and Oklahoma have been temporarily blocked by court order. In Texas, access to abortion has been particularly volatile; over the duration of just one month, access to abortion in the state has been banned and subsequently restored four separate times. As of May 19th, the only restrictions still in effect are in Arkansas, where a patient must test negative for Covid-19 forty-eight hours before the start of their abortion procedure. Due to limited testing capabilities, this requirement is difficult for patients to satisfy and has led to delays in obtaining the procedure. The sheer number of states that have attempted to enact abortion bans and the  rapidly changing policies on abortion access are all indicators of the high risk of losing this essential service.


Limiting access to abortion services can have devastating consequences for women who may require them. Delays in obtaining abortion care can increase the risk of maternal mortality and associated complications, decrease the number of providers that are able to perform the abortion procedure, and potentially eliminate the patient’s ability to have the service conducted if their gestational age rises above their state’s legal limit. The lack of safe and legal procedures can also drive pregnant women to seek out dangerous alternatives which can lead to adverse health outcomes. As Covid-19 cases are rapidly depleting medical resources and occupying healthcare personnel, the need to prevent hospitalizations from other causes has become even more urgent. In addition, reducing access to abortion services will disproportionately affect low-income women, who experience higher rates of unintended pregnancies, and further compound the financial hardships that many are already facing due to high unemployment rates created by the pandemic. 


As more industries are now relying on technological innovations in order to continue their operations and provide important customer services, it is critical for the healthcare field to do the same, especially when it comes to delivering essential services such as abortions. Telehealth platforms can allow physicians to consult with patients using videoconferencing tools and remotely monitor at-home consumption of abortion medication which can be mailed to patients. Studies have shown that such platforms have provided positive experiences for physicians and patients, improved access to abortion medication, decreased the number of abortions occurring after the first trimester, and failed to raise overall concerns about patient safety. During Covid-19, telehealth can be even more useful by allowing patients to continue social distancing and allowing healthcare providers to conserve PPE. Furthermore, sellers of contraceptives should arrange to have their products mailed to customer homes, enabling individuals to access these important supplies and prevent unwanted pregnancies without violating stay-at-home orders. In order to prevent future abortion bans from being implemented during the pandemic, other states should follow examples set by New Jersey, Washington, and New York and take action to protect abortion care during the pandemic by explicitly classifying it as an essential service. 


Policymakers must understand that the true enemy attacking our nation’s healthcare system is Covid-19, not abortion care. Current health policies should focus on addressing the pandemic instead of using it as a weapon to ban other healthcare services.