Janis Broder and Celeste E. Orr denounce the use of the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to make abortion inaccessible.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of abortion rights has been central to the debate concerning what is essential medical care. Many health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights maintain that access to legal, safe abortion is essential always, COVID-19 pandemic included.
Yet, many right-wing, “pro-life” politicians and organizations claim that abortion is not essential. They suggest that abortion should be deemed non-essential because providers are using up essential personal protective equipment. However, if everyone had access to timely medical abortions – a couple of pills that can be prescribed over the phone – supplies of protective equipment would be conserved. Further, they imply abortion is not essential because people will not die without access to it. For example, Canadian-based organization, Campaign Life Coalition argues that someone cannot die without access to abortion because “pregnancy is not a disease.”
This claim is entirely false. People can die without access to safe abortion care. People can die from pregnancy-related complications. However, more importantly, as countless academic studies, medical professionals, and health organizations attest, if people do not have access to essential safe abortion care, many people die. Rolanda Ryan, owner of the St. John’s Newfoundland abortion clinic, Athena Health Centre, explains, “The worst case scenario, if we closed our doors, is somebody trying to do it themselves…in places in the world where abortion is illegal and unacceptable, women die.” According to WHO, “each year between 4.7%-13.2% of maternal deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortion,” each year several millions of people are admitted to hospitals because of unsafe abortions, and “the annual cost of treating major complications from unsafe abortion is estimated at US $533 million.”
Contrary to these facts, “pro-life” organizations have petitioned to have abortion deemed non-essential. If, these organizations were really “pro-life” and really believed “human life is precious,” they would want to prevent the deaths of living people by ensuring they have access to essential abortion care. They would want to avoid preventable admissions to hospitals that put more people at risk of contracting COVID-19, increase the COVID-19 death toll, and further strain medical personnel and the limited supplies of protective equipment, supplies they claim to be saving through cutting off abortion services.
To prevent unwarranted deaths and fulfil essential medical needs, abortion providers and health organizations are doing everything they can for patients and the global community by limiting contact to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Surgical abortions are “one of the safest and most common out-patient surgeries.” In fact, surgical abortions are “10 times safer than carrying a pregnancy term” in the US. Given social distancing measures, abortion care providers are opting for medical abortions when they can. Medical abortions involve taking two pills (mifepristone and misoprostol) and consultations can occur over the phone.
Despite abortion providers’ efforts, people in rural areas or in places that ban or limit abortion for unsubstantiated reasons have always been at a particular disadvantage. And, this disadvantage is exacerbated and complicated by the COVID-19 crisis, revealing longstanding issues with abortion medical care.
Access to abortion in Canada has been critiqued time and time again for making access to medical and surgical abortions incredibly difficult for certain communities. As a result, “the uneven patchwork of access that already exists across the country – just try getting an abortion in most rural areas or small communities – is going to be exacerbated” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Access was not and still is not equally available across the country; the pandemic is only intensifying issues with abortion medical care in Canada.
In addition, patients and the global community are at risk because many places have banned, limited, or deemed abortion non-essential because of “pro-life,” right-wing politicians and organizations. For example, surgical and medical abortions are deemed non-essential in Texas. Texans are then forced to consider unsafe abortions that may result in death or hospital admission. They must consider disobeying quarantine rules and travel across state lines to receive safe abortions. This then strains medical resources in other states as the demand for abortions increase above typical levels. Patients should never have to face this dilemma.
It is imperative we debunk right-wing, “pro-life” politicians and organizations’ false claims so we can productively address the very real dangers of not offering abortion care and treating it as a time-sensitive procedure during and after the COVID-19 crisis. In doing so, we must contend with the fact that COVID-19 makes the weaknesses in healthcare systems crystal clear. Patients’ lives and the health of the global community have been, and will continue to be, at risk if false information is spread and medical professionals are not granted the authority to provide the essential care their patients need.
Janis Broder is a graduating senior at St. Lawrence University majoring in International Economics and Spanish, minoring in Gender and Sexuality Studies as well as Caribbean and Latin American Studies.
Celeste E. Orr is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at St. Lawrence University.