Last week, a 24-year-old woman living in Arlington, Texas, filed a court declaration describing what she’s gone through since the governor, Greg Abbott, used the coronavirus crisis as a pretext to essentially ban abortions.
A college student studying to be a teacher, she’d lost her part-time waitressing job at around the same time she found out she was pregnant. She knew without question that she wanted an abortion, but even before Abbott signed the executive order that temporarily outlawed the procedure in the state, she had a hard time finding a clinic that could see her.
Eventually the woman, who opted to remain anonymous, was able to make an appointment in Fort Worth on March 20. Because of social distancing rules, she wasn’t able to bring her partner. According to her declaration, after signing in, she had to wait for two hours in her car, while protesters waved their signs and screamed at her. Once inside, she decided to have a medication abortion, but because of Texas’ 24-hour waiting period, she couldn’t get the pills that day.
The next available appointment was March 24. But before she could return, Abbott declared abortion a nonessential procedure that could not be performed during the coronavirus pandemic, ostensibly to save personal protective equipment needed by doctors and nurses. Frantic, the woman began calling clinics in nearby states.
Eventually she was able to make an appointment in Denver, 780 miles away. She and her best friend packed food for the 12-hour drive and stayed in an Airbnb. She took the first pill in the clinic, then raced home to take the second medication the next day. “Obviously, had this pregnancy not been a factor, I wouldn’t be traveling during a pandemic,” she said in her declaration, part of a lawsuit against Abbott.
While America’s attention has been consumed by the coronavirus crisis, politicians who have long wanted to do away with abortion rights have seized their chance. Since the pandemic began, governors in several red states have tried to use it as an excuse to ban abortion, lumping pregnancy termination in with elective procedures like cataract surgery and joint replacements that need to be postponed to save precious medical equipment. Abortion, perhaps needless to say, can’t simply be put off until this catastrophe is over, but as of this writing, a court has allowed the ban in Texas to go into effect.
Authoritarians all over the world have exploited the coronavirus to scrap civil liberties. In Hungary, where democracy has been eroding for years, Viktor Orban used the pandemic to institute rule by decree. In Jordan and Thailand, leaders have used the pandemic as an excuse for cracking down on the press. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his allies have frozen the Knesset and shut down most courts, postponing Netanyahu’s own arraignment on corruption charges. American autocrats are no less opportunist. With the country in a panic, they saw an opening to suspend the guarantees of Roe v. Wade, at least for the moment, and they took it.
As in the days before Roe, some will now likely turn to do-it-yourself abortion methods. Even before the coronavirus, women in Texas, where strict abortion laws have led to widespread clinic closures, had relatively high rates of attempted self-abortion. A January study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas at Austin found that 6.9% of women seeking abortions at clinics first tried to end their pregnancies on their own, compared to 2.2% nationally.
Dr. Bhavik Kumar of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Houston told me that since the governor’s executive order has forced him to turn away women seeking abortions, some have asked if there’s anything they can use to terminate their pregnancies themselves. They want to know, he said, about “herbs or vitamins or things that they’ve researched online. They are desperate to not be pregnant anymore.”
Others get on the road. “Texas is a restrictive state, so we’ve always seen patients from Texas, but the number of patients we’ve seen has dramatically increased,” Dr. Shelley Sella, who performs abortions in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told me. For the first time, she said, her clinic is being flooded with women seeking medication abortions, which used to be available in Texas.
“We would see women maybe who lived on the border between Texas and New Mexico, but now we’re seeing patients from Houston, driving from Houston for a medication abortion,” she said. “So they’re driving 13 hours for a pill.”
That would be traumatic at the best of times, and these are far from the best of times. Governors argue that they’re banning abortion to conserve resources for the pandemic, but they’re ensuring that more people expose themselves to the coronavirus. The 24-year-old woman who filed the court declaration brought her own sanitizing supplies with her, which she used to wipe down the Airbnb where she stayed, but there’s no way to take a long road trip without using public bathrooms and encountering multiple strangers. “I feel like Texas put me, and my best friend, in danger,” she said.
Despots love to pretend they’re rolling back rights to save lives. Don’t believe them.