In the midst of the most dangerous pandemic we’ve seen in more than a century, doctors and other health care workers have to rise to the occasion. Fear and uncertainty surround us, from the patients we serve to our own families to whom we go home at the end of a shift. While doing everything in our power to stop the spread of COVID-19 and treat those who are affected, we must also provide the essential care that cannot wait. The last thing we need is to be dragged into a political battle by opportunistic groups who see this pandemic as a chance to advance their attacks on reproductive health.
Anti-abortion groups have written to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar with a list of requests to curb access to abortion care. They do not just want abortion clinics to stop providing care — they also want to block telemedicine access to medication abortion, an important innovation for access at any time, but an especially critical one when any way to reduce contact between people can save lives. States like Texas are trying to put these ideas into action, exploiting the crisis to block abortion access. The legal whiplash as states and women’s health clinics fight it out in court creates extreme stress and confusion for people seeking care. This is a shameful attempt to capitalize on a crisis and will make life more difficult for the patients I care for.
I fell in love with being a women’s health care provider when I saw how a skilled, compassionate doctor could support someone through a vulnerable, scary time in their life, whether that was having a baby or deciding to end a pregnancy. I trust that women know what is best for them, and it’s my duty to provide them with safe, compassionate care, including abortion. We’re all feeling incredibly anxious right now. Our health, our mental well-being and our ability to provide for our families feels precarious for so many. Imagine adding to that the stress of being forced to continue a pregnancy. It’s cruel to add that unnecessary burden when people are already stressed and struggling.
It couldn’t be clearer that abortion care falls into the category of time-sensitive and essential health care, as a joint statement from major medical organizations emphasized. While abortion is an extremely safe procedure, the chance of complications increases the longer you wait. Many states have abortion bans that limit procedures after a certain point in pregnancy. The cost of the procedure also goes up the longer you wait, and most people will not have that cost covered by insurance. A delay of a few weeks can mean that women have to travel out of state and find a way to pay for transportation, lodging, childcare for the children they already have and a more expensive procedure. That’s an unjust burden in the best of times and even more challenging to navigate in such a precarious situation.
Thanks to my colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, we know what happens when women who want an abortion are forced to continue their pregnancies. Unsurprisingly, the research shows that women understand the profound impacts continuing an unwanted pregnancy can have in their lives; the concerns they share with me in the exam room are borne out in the data. The Turnaway Study found that women who couldn’t get the abortion they wanted were four times as likely to have income below the federal poverty level and three times as likely to be unemployed. They were less likely to have enough money to pay for basic family necessities like food, housing and transportation. They were more likely to stay in contact with violent partners, putting them and their children at greater risk. Continuing an unwanted pregnancy is associated with more serious health problems. Those findings don’t account for the uncertainty about how devastating this pandemic’s impact on the economy is going to be. Thousands of Americans are losing their jobs, and businesses are struggling to stay open. Denying abortion care right now is piling on another public health crisis in the service of a misguided political agenda.
My colleagues and I, along with abortion providers around the country, are following CDC guidelines and using every measure possible to protect our patients while we provide them the care they need. Rather than putting up more barriers to care, leaders should be making sure we have the protective equipment and supplies we need to make our care as safe as possible. The FDA should remove unnecessary restrictions that make medication abortion unavailable so people can have safe abortions without leaving their homes during a pandemic. Extraordinary times like these require us to do everything we can to protect people’s health and well-being. That includes ensuring that everyone gets the safe, compassionate abortion care they need.
Dr. Jody Steinauer is an obstetrician-gynecologist and the director of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco.
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