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Exploiting a Health Care Emergency to Restrict Reproductive Rights

reproductive rights

It's a shameful power play, writes Julianna S. Gonen of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. People across the world are being infected by the millions and dying by the thousands. In this country we are scrambling to provide care for those affected even as our economy staggers from the impact of necessary social distancing and business closures. Many of us have never experienced anything of this magnitude in our lifetimes. It's an all-hands-on-deck moment when we must set our sights on getting through this catastrophe through coordinated and unified action.

Oh, and we must also continue to undermine access to abortion. Let's not forget that. Because surely it's just as important as stemming the death toll from a virulent and deadly virus that has literally overtaken the world.

That appears to be the view of a number of federal and state officials, whose desire to restrict or eliminate access to abortion knows no bounds, even during a global health emergency. Rather than focusing on protecting their constituents from COVID-19, anti-abortion legislators and elected officials have exploited the pandemic to advance their agenda of restricting reproductive freedom.

When Congress put together the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) at the end of March, anti-abortion lawmakers snuck in a provision denying small business loans to non-profit health care providers that receive Medicaid funds -- for the sole purpose of ensuring that Planned Parenthood health centers would not be eligible for these resources. In their zeal to attack Planned Parenthood, these legislators failed to realize how many other types of health care providers would be swept up in their crusade -- including home and community-based disability providers, community-based nursing homes, mental health providers and health centers, group homes for the disabled, and even rape crisis centers. Amid widespread opposition, they were forced to drop the provision, although the final version of the legislation may give the Small Business Administration discretion to deny Planned Parenthood funds.

The CARES Act also gratuitously included the Hyde Amendment, a rider inserted into appropriations for federal health care expenditures every year that prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion care except in very limited circumstances. The Hyde Amendment already, unfortunately, exists. There is absolutely no reason to repeat it in a relief act.

Finally, not to be outdone by federal anti-abortion legislators, officials in several states -- including Ohio, Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Texas, and Oklahoma -- have used the COVID-19 crisis to ban abortion altogether. Despite the fact that abortion is by definition extremely time-sensitive, these officials have deemed it "non-essential" care and threatened abortion clinics with severe penalties if they continue to provide services to their patients. Lawsuits are now underway, as providers desperately try to keep their doors open and serve those who need them.

This obsessive focus on abortion in the midst of a public health disaster is dangerous.

First, it will deprive many people of access to needed care. For obvious reasons abortion cannot be delayed too long or it will no longer be an option. Many states have limits on how late in a pregnancy an abortion may be obtained, so time is always of the essence for those seeking to end a pregnancy. With no clear end in sight to the pandemic, telling abortion providers to stop until the public health crisis has passed is the same as banning abortion. Now more than ever, care delayed will mean care denied altogether.

Second, it is harmful to public health. As is too often the case with policymaking around abortion, the opinions of medical professionals are being ignored. Barring abortion during the outbreak disregards the recommendations of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other leading medical organizations, which have strongly condemned such efforts as a threat to "life, health, and well-being."

Third, it is an outrageous distraction from the overwhelming need to focus on the crisis caused by the pandemic. Elected officials should be focusing on flattening the curve, keeping people safe, ensuring the continued functioning of our health care system, and propping up the faltering economy. Instead, they are exploiting the crisis to attack abortion providers and undermine access to an essential, time-sensitive health care service.

In an equally shocking display of callousness and irresponsibility, the Idaho legislature recently took precious time away from dealing with a health care catastrophe to bar transgender youth from sports and prohibit transgender people from obtaining accurate ID.

We must not allow elected officials to discriminate against women and LGBTQ people under the guise of responding to the pandemic. Especially in this crisis, public policy -- and in particular public health policy -- must leave no one behind. At a bare minimum, it must not be abused to deliberately harm particular groups.

Julianna S. Gonen, Esq. is the Policy Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). She has an extensive background in federal policy and advocacy for non-profits, specifically on issues related to reproductive rights. She is the author of Litigation as Lobbying: Reproductive Hazards and Interest Aggregation, published by The Ohio State University Press; the book is a case study of United Auto Workers v. Johnson Controls, a 1991 Supreme Court case in which corporate "fetal protection" policies were found to be unlawful sex discrimination.

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Julianna S. Gonen