Communities nationwide are still getting used to our New Normal as we continue to fight the spread of coronavirus. The economy has slowed as people are encouraged to stay home. Businesses are closing shop and medical procedures are being delayed if they are not considered “essential.” But the decision of what becomes an essential service during a pandemic — beyond pharmacies, hospitals, and grocery stores — is now turning into a larger conflict.
For one, anti-abortion lobbyists are using this moment to curtail reproductive rights, which are already under attack, while gun advocates are fighting to remain "essential" despite widespread closures to other businesses. According to the National Rifle Association, “all options — legal, legislative, and otherwise — are on the table.” As such, a number of lawsuits demanding an exemption for firearm sales to be called "essential" during the shut down have popped up.
In Dallas County, Texas, an amendment was added to the stay home order to include shops that sell guns and ammunition as essential. Gun shop owners have decided to remain open because they “feel like [they’re] essential,” as one Texas store owner said. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pointed to current decarceration efforts as one reason to keep gun shops open, arguing that the release of low-level incarcerated people could lead to a "breakdown of society." Despite the fact that there is no evidence of decarceration endangering public safety, Patrick said that he thinks "it’s very important for personal safety."
While gun lobbyists in Texas are executing exemptions to stay at home orders, abortion rights are under attack across the country — and specifically in Texas — for being "non-essential" surgeries during the coronavirus pandemic. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order on Sunday to postpone any surgeries that are not “immediately medically necessary,” which his office later confirmed would also extend to in-clinic abortions. The following day, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered a ban on most abortions in the state. In response, Planned Parenthood filed an emergency lawsuit in federal court to overturn the order.
“It’s unconscionable that the Texas Attorney General is exploiting this pandemic to end abortion in the state,” said Nancy Northup, head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which also joined the lawsuit. Reproductive justice advocates argue that demands to close abortion clinics, which have also popped up in Ohio and Louisiana, are a violation of Roe v. Wade.
In Ohio, Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Fulkerson ordered all clinics that provide surgical abortions to halt the procedure for the duration of the pandemic, calling it a "non-essential and elective" procedure. The concept of calling abortions "medically unnecessary" during the pandemic is now spreading state-by-state, where officials are seeking to close Planned Parenthood locations and other clinics.
Abortion is always an essential medical procedure that must be legally, financially, and physically accessible to every person who needs one. And, abortion care is a time-sensitive procedure. By banning abortions or creating state-wide mandates, particularly when there is a shortage in clinicians, many are at risk of accessing reproductive healthcare. All three states that have enacted a stop to abortions already have mandatory waiting periods on the books, which require patients to receive state-directed counseling followed by a 24-hour waiting period before the procedure is provided.
These ordinances also lay a groundwork for how abortion access may change after the pandemic. As legislations across the country continue to threaten reproductive health care systems and destabilize abortion laws, it's now more than ever that maintaining free and safe abortions is important and medically necessary. And in states that are willing to exempt gun laws as necessary, abortions are the last frontier we should be attacking.