What It’s Like Fighting For Abortion Access In America In The Age Of Coronavirus
Clinic escorts are social distancing and staying home. But the protestors shouting, “You’re going to hell!” are refusing to.
For the past five years, Kristin Hady has been a regular clinic escort at Capital Care of Toledo in Ohio, walking patients past hordes of protesters who scream in their faces that they’re murderers and are going to hell. A mother of three, she also helps care for her husband’s parents. Her father-in-law is in at-home hospice care, and both have been under strict quarantine for the better part of a month.
But Hady hasn’t volunteered as a clinic escort for nearly a month; she simply can’t risk exposing her in-laws to COVID-19. And just a couple of weeks ago, her clinic escort group stopped their work altogether. “We collectively decided that, as much as we hated it, it would be time to suspend escorting, at least while the ‘stay-at-home’ orders are in place,” Hady told Refinery29. “We would have felt awful if our presence there, even comforting for the 30 seconds that they’re outside, could have contributed to getting a patient sick.” There have been over 2,000 coronavirus cases in Ohio, and like in the rest of the country, the number is growing. The governor issued a stay-at-home order on March 22.
Capital Care still has upwards of 30 protesters gathered outside its front door on any given day, and according to Hady, they stand mere inches away from patients’ cars, shamelessly ignoring social distancing guidelines from scientific experts. These protesters are overwhelmingly politically conservative and while some are Catholic, many are evangelical Christians, a demographic that has largely dismissed the coronavirus pandemic. A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that only 32% of white evangelicals say coronavirus poses a major health risk to the U.S., and more than three-quarters think the media has overhyped this pandemic. The same group that’s showing up to protest at abortion clinics, endangering others, has seemingly refused to accept that this pandemic is real. This leaves Capital Care patients on their own, forced to try to avoid protesters who refuse to stay six feet away.
Accessing an abortion is already rarely an easy feat. Depending on where you live, you may have to take multiple trips to a clinic, endure a mandatory ultrasound against your will, or even travel hundreds of miles to get to the nearest clinic. Now, abortion patients are facing a new obstacle: navigating the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has threatened more than just the safety of abortion clinic staff, escorts, and patients. It’s also provided anti-choice lawmakers in several states with a prime excuse and unique opportunity to do what they’ve been trying to do for years: end legal abortion in their state. They are facing robust court fights.
Recently, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost ordered clinics to stop performing “non-essential” abortions to preserve statewide resources. In his order, Yost declared “non-essential” abortions as “those that can be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of a patient.” Research shows that denying abortion can negatively affect a patient’s mental health. Texas immediately followed suit, requiring the postponement of “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” Clinics that do not comply will be met with penalties up to $1,000 or 180 days in jail. On Tuesday, an appeals court let Texas uphold the ban, for now.
Ohio clinics have continued to provide abortions, citing them as “essential care” and therefore “fully compliant” with the law. They filed suit to keep it that way, and on Monday, a federal judge sided with them by temporarily blocking Ohio’s restriction from closing their doors. But according to Stephanie Sherwood, executive director of Women Have Options, which provides financial and logistical support to people seeking abortion care in Ohio, pregnant people are still scared. “We’re getting calls and messages on social media and email, saying, ‘I’ve got this appointment. Can I still go? I don’t know what I’m going to do if I can’t get the care that I need,’” Sherwood said. “People are afraid that they will lose the opportunity to get their abortion.” In Ohio, 93% of counties already don't have an abortion provider; in Texas it's 96%.
Abortion isn’t like other “elective” healthcare procedures. For someone who needs an abortion, it doesn’t feel elective. It’s also time-sensitive. Unlike knee-replacement surgery or cosmetic procedures, there is a firm time-table when it comes to abortion, particularly in states like Texas that have banned abortions at 20 weeks. Amid this pandemic, you now don’t even have the option to travel to another state. If you can’t get an abortion in your state’s allotted time, you are essentially being forced to give birth.
Abortion is essential care.
Even in states where abortion is more easily accessible, pregnant people are struggling to get care amid the pandemic.
“I found out I was pregnant on March 16, right when the coronavirus pandemic was starting to get extremely serious here in New York,” Jennifer, who asked that her last name be withheld, told Refinery29. “My brain was so foggy at that moment, but the only thing that was clear was the fact that I had to get an abortion, and I had to get one as quickly as possible.”
Jennifer lives in New York City, which, while certainly an easier place to find an abortion, has now become the epicenter of America’s coronavirus crisis. She didn’t have to contend with space-invading protesters or travel all that far to get to a clinic, but she did feel like she had to rush against the coronavirus clock. That included deciding whether to have a surgical or medication abortion.
“The nurse said that she usually pushes for the [surgical abortion] due to the fact that the abortion pill [can] come with very intense side effects, but she was afraid of the clinic having a forced closure, and every minute was sacred at that moment,” Jennifer said. “Even the nurse told me she wouldn't want to be me at that moment.”
Ultimately, Jennifer opted for medication abortion. As an editor, she was already working from home when she found out she was pregnant. Now, she worked at home through the physical symptoms because she was afraid to take more time off. While she’s relieved that she was able to access an abortion, she hasn’t been able to fully process the pain and trauma of having to navigate an unplanned pregnancy in the middle of a pandemic.
“I'm glad that I can take my time in quarantine to fully process everything that's going on, but the constant fear of getting infected by far outweighs the relief I feel from this whole process being over,” she said.
As long as Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, abortion is still legal in every single state. Despite the onerous restrictions in place in many states, abortion clinics remain open. For how long now depends on the courts.
What’s frustrating to many abortion-rights supporters is how much easier it could be to get an abortion, particularly in the middle of this pandemic. Medication abortion, which Jennifer relied on, doesn’t require undergoing a procedure in a clinic. Telemedicine allows patients to access care remotely from a doctor or nurse via technology. A study published last year in Obstetrics & Gynecology showed that telemedicine abortion is just as safe and effective as the in-person procedure. Yet it faces significant restrictions. Currently, 18 states require in-person visits to obtain medication abortion, an onerous and unnecessary requirement at any time. Now, it could potentially endanger the lives of abortion patients. Amid this crisis, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could relax restrictions on medication abortion and potentially save lives. Why won't it do so?
Perhaps because abortion, an incredibly common experience that one in four women in the U.S. will have, isn’t prioritized. Politicians treat this essential care that has allowed millions of people to create the kinds of lives they want, and in some cases, literally survive, as a political football and a selfish choice. In reality, abortion is essential care, and the U.S. is very close to seeing what will happen when access to it erodes. Before coronavirus hit, we were already at a crisis point for abortion access, with a third of abortion clinics forced to close and 400 abortion restrictions passed over the past 10 years. Now, that crisis will only grow more acute for the most marginalized among us. Unless states begin to crack down on the mass of protesters still assembling at clinics and the FDA eases restrictions on medication abortion, safe and legal abortion could become a pipe dream for many pregnant people.
Instead of helping shepherd patients past protesters at Capital Care, Hady now puts in 24-hour shifts, switching off with her husband, to provide care to her in-laws. She obsessively washes her hands, disinfects everything around her, and employs strict social distancing practices. Her father-in-law is dying, and she doesn’t want to expedite it by potentially exposing him to the virus.
But she plans to get back to helping abortion patients seek the care they need as soon as humanly possible. “Such is life these days,” she said. “But when I’m able to go back to clinic escorting, I’ll be back. As soon as this is all over, we’ll be back.”