Elizabeth Untama / Gavel Media

The Dangers Facing Reproductive Rights During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Times of crisis are when civil liberties become the most vulnerable to attack. People are distracted by matters of life and death, resources are lacking, and oppressive leaders or institutions feel emboldened to trample over human rights. COVID-19 has been no exception; governments have seized the opportunity presented by the pandemic to strip away women’s reproductive rights. 

One of the more well-known instances of abortion bans during COVID-19 came from Texas under the jurisdiction of Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton. In light of the virus, Texas banned elective medical procedures, including abortions, and threatened abortion providers with fines or even jail time

The ‘rationale’ behind this decision was that hospitals are strained for personal protective equipment (PPE), and therefore, none can afford to be wasted on abortion procedures. However, the ban included medication-induced abortions that do not require any PPE, which accounted for 32% of abortions in Texas in 2017. Furthermore, less than 0.2% of abortions in Texas required a hospital stay, i.e. the kind of abortions that are supposedly putting a strain on our healthcare system. Not to mention, abortion requires a whole lot less PPE than pregnancy and delivery. 

Abbott has previously put forth and praised legislation that dissuades women from getting abortions, including a 2011 bill that requires women to see ultrasound images of the fetus before an abortion. The intentions of Gov. Abbott and his anti-abortion donors, though thinly veiled under the guise of rationality, are still apparent. The ban isn’t about the coronavirus; it’s about ideology and controlling women. 

Although the ban eventually folded after a lengthy legal battle, it was not without consequences. Hundreds of women either traveled to another state for abortion access or waited until the ban was over, overwhelming clinics with a flood of patients.

One woman, Louise, was denied an abortion despite carrying one twin who had already died in the womb and another who was certain to die from skeletal dysplasia. Louise and others endured needless mental and physical suffering at the hands of Texas leaders who used the ban as a way to flex their power. 

Numerous other states followed suit, seizing upon the opportunity to attack reproductive rights during the pandemic, including Iowa, Ohio, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Luckily, policies to suspend abortion have been overturned in all of these states except Arkansas, which requires a negative COVID-19 test result at least 48 hours before the procedure. That would be all well and good, except that testing in Arkansas is still lagging far behind where it should be, which could limit access. 

The common thread running between these states is conservative leadership, and a similar pattern emerges on the world stage. 

Poland recently issued one of the most aggressive attacks on abortion during a nationwide lockdown. Poland already has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world—it is illegal except in cases of rape, endangerment to the mother, or fetal abnormality (where the fetus is not likely to survive).

However, a bill recently introduced to the Polish parliament, titled Project Godek, hopes to eliminate this last provision and make it illegal to abort fetuses that have severe or even life-threatening abnormalities. 

Project Godek also proposes a complete ban on sex education in schools, making it difficult for girls to learn about their reproductive health and methods of contraception.  

This is not the first time Polish authorities have attempted to tighten abortion laws, but it is unique in that this time around, women are limited in their ability to fight back. In 2016, the Polish government proposed a total abortion ban, with a punishment of jail time for women and doctors, which would also require miscarriages to be investigated under ‘suspicious circumstances.’ In response, Polish women organized a strike dubbed “Black Monday,” which saw over 150,000 participants walk out of their workplaces and protest.

They were successful in striking down the bill, but in 2018, the ban was reintroduced and women yet again donned black clothing, representing the death of their reproductive rights, to rally against the law. 

In light of COVID-19, Polish women are now being denied the right to organize and protest due to a nationwide lockdown. They’ve turned to more subtle displays of resistance, such as signs or black umbrellas hanging out of their windows.

There is no doubt that the timing of these anti-abortion measures, in the United States and abroad, is more than merely a coincidence. Lawmakers know that any opposition to their oppressive policies will be weakened thanks to the pandemic. 

It is also clear that attacking abortion rights during a pandemic isn’t about protecting the sanctity of human life or preserving medical supplies. It’s about kicking women when they’re already down.

Although pro-lifers base their holier-than-thou arguments in compassion for unborn beings, they lack any empathy for women who are forced into stillbirths, forced to care for their severely disabled child only to watch it die months later, or forced to bring a child into this world that they cannot provide for.

They leverage abortion rights as a weapon to exert control over women, demonstrated by their general hostility towards gender equality. Their fight, masked as reverence for human life, is led by men of straw who stand for nothing but virtue signaling and a desire for power.

Despite all of this, it is clear that those fighting to take away reproductive rights recognize the power that voices of dissent hold. It’s why they attempted to institute bans when they believed those voices would be quiet. 


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Julia Swiatek