When Fiona Earnhart* from Philadelphia discovered she was pregnant in March, the 31-year-old became anxious. Although she’s married and does want to have children someday, she was in the midst of job hunting and couldn’t envision searching for employment while pregnant. There was also another complication looming: the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that sparked a global health crisis. Earnhart made her decision. She was going to get an abortion.
There’s no denying that reproductive rights have always been in jeopardy in this country. Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court recognized safe and legal abortion as a constitutional right in 1973, anti-abortion politicians have challenged that right. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, 32 states enacted 394 new abortion restrictions from 2011 to 2017. Even in the face of these restrictions, people continue to seek abortions. In 2017, medical practitioners provided 862,320 abortions in the United States, per the Guttmacher Institute’s most recent national abortion incidence data.
The coronavirus’s impact on access to abortion has been multifaceted. People in search of an abortion during this crisis often grapple with very valid fears of getting the virus while trying to receive medical care. What’s more, the pandemic has created an opportunity for some anti-abortion government officials to attempt to strategically enforce additional restrictions on reproductive rights.
Government officials in states including Texas, Ohio, Arkansas, and Iowa have restricted or banned abortion at various points during the pandemic, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In April, for instance, a federal appeals court in Texas placed a temporary ban on abortion as part of the state’s coronavirus response, stating the procedure was “nonessential.” Also early on in the pandemic, federal courts in Ohio limited surgical abortions while allowing patients access to medication abortion (also called the abortion pill), which is often used when people are 10 or fewer weeks along in their pregnancies. While these kinds of bans are no longer in effect, according to the Guttmacher Institute, for a time they further complicated the already complex process of getting an abortion in the United States.
As a result, some people seeking to end their pregnancies when their states limited abortion access during the pandemic had to take extra, burdensome measures to receive that care, often traveling out of state to a clinic.
“Crossing state lines to obtain abortion care is always an added hurdle and difficulty,” Tam Nickerson, clinic operations director at Preterm in Ohio, tells SELF.
Even in pre-pandemic times, it was more strenuous than it should have been to get an abortion in Ohio. “Ohio has made it particularly difficult to access abortion care in our state by passing medically unnecessary laws that require patients to wait and to receive medically inaccurate information, and require doctors to jump through hurdles that have nothing to do with medical care,” Nickerson says. Then came the temporary yet still harmful pandemic-era legal limitations.
At the end of March, a federal court granted Ohio abortion providers, including Preterm, a temporary restraining order that enabled them to keep performing abortions during the pandemic. According to Vanessa Arenas, deputy director at Preterm, “the state was using the pandemic as an attack on abortion care.”
In the state of Tennessee, where abortion access had similarly already been under attack before the pandemic, COVID-19 only adds to abortion advocates’ frustration.
“There’s a lot more anxiety around being able to access care,” Katy Leopard, director of external affairs at Choices—Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, tells SELF. “This not only applies to abortion services but our midwifery and birth services as well.” At various points people have been so afraid the clinic will shut down that the center’s call volume was up significantly due to patients asking if they were even still open, Leopard says.