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Coronavirus provides cover for assault on abortion rights

Conservative politicians are endangering women’s health during an epidemic.

Abortion rights demonstrators rallied outside the US Supreme Court in Washington on March 4.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated to reflect breaking news.

Under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, states where women’s reproductive rights were already under fire are seizing the opportunity to prevent abortions by rendering them “nonessential” procedures.

The move is dangerous, and it’s cynical, as some courts have already pointed out. But ultimately the push-back will have to be both legal and political — as this back-to-the-future moment also becomes a teachable moment.

So as a contingent of Republican politicians pander to their conservative bases, the women most affected are those making difficult decisions at a time of unimaginable stress — emotional, physical, and financial.


What better time for largely white, male politicians to judge that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is in the same category as a facelift or knee replacement?

Ground zero for the assault on women’s reproductive rights has been Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott’s emergency ban on nonessential medical procedures originally included not just surgical abortions but any induced with pills as well. The latter in particular is most effective if administered within eight to 10 weeks of conception.

The ostensible reason the Republican governor offered for the ban was to preserve the still-scarce personal protective equipment needed by doctors on the front lines of fighting the virus. On April 13, US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that medical abortions (those induced with pills) could continue, but only women whose pregnancies were approaching the state’s 22-week cut-off could be offered surgical abortions. Just a week later, on Monday April 20, the court reversed itself, allowing the ban on medical abortions in Texas to be reinstated.

In his concurring opinion in the April 13 ruling, Judge James L. Dennis, a Clinton appointee, noted that the state’s ban on medical abortions “is a strong indication that enforcement is pretextual and does not bear a ‘real or substantial relation’ to the public health crisis we are experiencing.”


The fact that using executive orders to ban abortions spread among the usual contingent of GOP governors nearly as fast as the virus itself speaks to the “pretextual” nature of their actions.

Similar bans in Ohio, Alabama, and Oklahoma have been successfully put on hold by court challenges. The governor of Iowa reached an agreement with abortion providers just ahead of a scheduled court hearing.

But Mississippi’s sole remaining clinic offering abortion services has essentially been shut down. And in Louisiana, assistant attorneys general demanded records during visits to the state’s three remaining abortion clinics to determine if they were abiding by the state’s COVID-19 emergency protocols. The visits came the day after the Fifth Circuit’s latest ruling. The future of that state’s restrictive abortion laws — requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — is now pending before the US Supreme Court, which heard the case in March.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement on March 18 as states began issuing emergency orders: “Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care. It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible.”

Such health risks are being subverted for the cause of scoring political points.


Even as some emergency orders expire, the real fear is that the assault on abortion rights is far from over. In fact, the attorneys general of 18 states have signed on to an amicus brief filed with the US Supreme Court in support of the Texas ban.

Just as ominous, the CARES Act stimulus package contains language that would essentially allow the Small Business Administration to deny loans to Planned Parenthood or its affiliates. It also includes a Hyde Amendment-like provision to prevent state and local governments from using any of the funds to provide abortion services.

And that means that as progressive as Massachusetts is, it too could be impacted by this stepped-up effort to starve clinics that provide health care services to women by attacking their financial resources.

It’s wrong. But to strike a deal in Congress, it’s not unusual to have women’s rights used as a bargaining chip — especially to get the signature of a president adept at pandering to his favorite interest groups.

So this isn’t just a Texas problem — certainly not for the clinics in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, which have provided services for patients traveling from Texas. But also for every state where women think their rights are safeguarded. No one’s rights are truly safe until everyone’s rights are safe. We should cross our fingers that wisdom and civil liberties prevail in the country’s high court and that political change comes to Washington come November. In the meantime, congressional leaders should be fighting to protect reproductive freedom and women’s health, not sacrificing it.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.