These past three months have often felt like wartime, complete with restrictions and rationing. And as often happens in wartime, a parallel struggle has played out under cover of the general chaos. Its battles have taken place outside abortion clinics, in courts, and in the media.
In the United States, COVID-19 restrictions began limiting business, gatherings, and social interactions on a widespread scale early in March, 2020. California enacted the nation’s first shelter-in-place order March 19, and most other states followed suit. Schools, churches, and non-essential businesses closed. In an effort to preserve ICU space and conserve personal protective equipment, hospitals postponed non-emergency procedures.
“Abortion care” considered “essential”
There was a fleeting expectation that abortion clinics would be closed by COVID-19 restrictions. However, it soon became apparent that in most places, the abortion industry would get a pass on these restrictions. The majority of Planned Parenthood facilities stayed open. The organization’s website stated, “Abortion care is time-sensitive and essential, and nurses and doctors are doing the best they can to continue to provide abortions.” As hospitals postponed vital procedures like heart surgeries, abortion clinics went on killing babies.
As long as it was business-as-usual for many abortion facilities, pro-lifers across the country continued to be a physical presence in front of abortion clinics, either praying or counseling. They followed social distancing guidelines, but felt strongly that their presence was essential. “If clinics are open, we need to be there,” pro-lifer leader Monica Migliorino Miller said during a March 27 conference call hosted by Pro-Life Action League. “We cannot be abandoning our posts.”
Eleven states tried to temporarily ban abortions, declaring them non-essential. Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and others immediately went to court to overturn the bans. Eventually, even states that successfully banned surgical abortions during the crisis allowed chemical abortions (also known as medication abortions) to continue. By late April, COVID-19-related abortion restrictions remained in only one state, Arkansas, which required abortion patients to show a negative COVID-19 test before the procedure.
Not satisfied with being allowed to operate with impunity, Planned Parenthood and its allies went on the offensive. Abortion clinics quickly began using social-distancing restrictions to harass pro-lifers. In the two weeks between March 25 and April 7, there were at least eight incidents in which individuals praying or counseling outside abortion clinics were threatened with citation or arrest if they remained.
Pro-lifers sometimes faced an outsized police presence, as in Detroit on March 30, where 15 police officers confronted three men peacefully counseling outside Scotsdale Women’s Center and Family Planning. And on April 2 the City of San Francisco issued its first citation for violating COVID-19 restrictions to 86-year-old Ron Konopaski, who was praying as he walked back and forth in front of Planned Parenthood.
Lawyers from the Thomas More Society, Life Legal Defense Foundation, the American Freedom Law Center, and others took these cases to court. In Detroit, after lawyers from the American Freedom Law Center filed a federal lawsuit, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer clarified her stay-at-home order to exempt those taking part in activity protected by the First Amendment. And after Life Legal Defense Foundation attorneys successfully negotiated with San Francisco city attorneys, pro-lifers were allowed back on the sidewalk.
Victories like these slowed the spate of arrests, and as COVID-19 protests around the country started making the news, “freedom of expression” was the by-word that generally kept pro-lifers from police interference.
Media bias and blitz
Meanwhile, reproductive health advocates did their best to keep abortion in the public eye alongside the coronavirus. The media coverage allotted to abortion during the pandemic demonstrated the enormous influence of Planned Parenthood and its allies. And it attested to something else: they were very worried about the pandemic and its effect on abortion access.
As restrictions swept the US, a flurry of headlines attested to the abortion lobby’s freak-out: “House Republicans Tried to Capitalize on Coronavirus to Sneak Anti-Abortion Language Into Law” (Mother Jones, March 13); “Texas, Ohio Officials Use COVID-19 as an Excuse To Restrict Abortion” (Reason, March 24); “Abortion is Essential Healthcare” (Wisconsin Examiner, March 25); “States Are Using the Cover of COVID-19 to Restrict Abortion and Health Care for Women” (Rolling Stone, March 30) .
The headlines became downright hysterical as the weeks went on: “‘Sadness Beyond Tears’ as COVID-19 Abortion Ban Brings Chaos to Texas Clinics” (Re-wire News, April 2); “COVID-19 Could Permanently Hurt Abortion Access,” (Time, April 2); “Texas women forced to travel 20 times farther for abortion under coronavirus ban” (The Hill, April 3); “Abortion Access Thrown into Jeopardy by Coronavirus” (CNN, April 9).
From early March, articles and opinion pieces linking abortion and COVID-19 restrictions appeared in hundreds of online and print publications. Time, Newsweek, Forbes, even publications like Foreign Policy, Business Insider, and The Economist, all had their piece—and sometimes multiple pieces—on COVID-19’s impact on abortion access. A May 4 op-ed piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer laments the restrictions placed on abortion due to the pandemic; a May 11 Forbes article proclaims, “Women Must Be Able to Have Abortions at Home”; and a May 13 Rewire editorial complains that abortion patients in Arkansas must take a COVID-19 test. The Hill asks, “Is defunding the WHO really just a backdoor attack on sexual and reproductive health?” (May 26), while the UN News details in its special report, issued May 26: “US states ‘manipulating’ COVID-19 pandemic to restrict abortion access, rights experts charge.”
These articles employ the puzzling rhetoric of the abortion struggle, starting with the characterization of abortion as “essential healthcare.” The abortion lobby has long had its own vocabulary, characterized by heavy use of the phrase “anti-choice” to describe those who disagree. But it still jars to learn that a woman’s “choice” is no longer “elective.” And it is equally surprising to learn that “pregnancy care” includes abortion. Michigan Governor Whitmer exemplified this doublespeak, speaking in Lansing, Michigan (as quoted in the Detroit News April 20): “A woman’s health care, her whole future, her ability to decide if and when she starts a family is not an ‘election,’ it is a fundamental to her life. It is life-sustaining, and it’s something that government should not be getting in the middle of.”
A common theme in the media was the increased demand for abortion during the pandemic. An April 13 Associated Press article quoted Dr. Jen Villavicencio, an abortionist in Michigan: “I hear it in my patient’s voices and questions daily… They’re worried about how they will make their rent, feed their family, access a ventilator if the need arises.” The article cited reasons why abortion rates might spike, from financial considerations, to concern about high-risk pregnancies, to infants with special needs.
The extraordinary wave of coverage indicated fear on several levels: fear that restrictions on non-essential medical procedures would close abortion clinics, fear that even with clinics open, fewer women would choose abortion, and concern that laws spawned by the pandemic would erode abortion rights in the long term.
In an article titled “How Anti-Abortion Activists Are Taking Advantage of the Coronavirus Crisis” (March 24) Time magazine summed it up: “In just two weeks the novel coronavirus managed exactly what anti-abortion activists struggled for nearly five decades to accomplish: it is the biggest threat to legal abortion in America ever imagined.” The New England Journal of Medicine echoed this worry in an April 9th article: “The speed with which some governors have suspended abortion care during this pandemic highlights the extreme vulnerability of abortion access in the United States.”
On a grassroots level, increased harassment of pro-lifers may have reflected a fear that women were actually more open to changing their minds about abortion at this time. While the media insisted more women were likely to choose abortion during the pandemic, this was “typical abortion industry propaganda,” said Howard Haupt, longtime pro-life activist and 40 Days for Life organizer in Napa, California. The abortion industry, said Haupt, was “capitalizing on a woman’s fears and uncertainty during the confusion of a global pandemic, and advertising an ‘easy solution.’”
Pro-life creativity and adaptation
The number of babies saved actually grew during the crisis, as dedicated sidewalk counselors and prayer warriors continued coming out to clinics. Pregnancy help centers reported a steep rise in clients during the COVID-19 shutdown. Many of these cases originated at the sidewalk level, where pro-lifers reached out with options and resources.
Michelle Kolbeck directs Life Choices, in Ojai, California. She said calls to the center’s hotline have doubled since the shutdown. For her, the presence of dedicated pro-lifers at the abortion clinic, coupled with caring staff at pregnancy help centers, is a win-win. “We receive a number of calls from clients who went to Planned Parenthood,” said Kolbeck. “Our hotline is also 24/7 and is answered either by myself of my nurse so we get an immediate personal connection. Because we are small, my nurse and I are able to provide immediate services.”
Heartbeat International’s 24/7 “Option Line” has seen a 30 percent increase in calls since the pandemic began. In addition to crisis pregnancy counseling, the hotline provides referrals to a variety of resources, from online parenting classes to drop-off diaper services.
Andrea Trudden is Heartbeat’s director of communications and marketing. The issues faced by women in difficult pregnancies have not changed, she said, but the challenges are greater due to the current situation. “The pregnancy help movement has become very creative in serving communities throughout the nation in productive ways,” she said. “When a woman finds herself in an unexpected pregnancy, pandemic or not, fear of the unknown exists. The reality remains that no woman should ever feel so alone or coerced that she feels abortion is her only option. Women deserve to have all the information about all their choices and that is what the pregnancy help movement provides.”
As pregnancy help centers nationwide adapted to pandemic conditions, pro-lifers faced another area of challenge. Much of the abortion related media coverage during the crisis focused on telemedicine and medication abortion. An April 14 Time article, widely distributed by local and national news outlets, reassured readers that “Planned Parenthood is expanding telehealth to all 50 states amid the coronavirus pandemic.” “Could coronavirus make telemedicine abortion the new normal?” asked Elle magazine May 19. As doctors turned to “telehealth” for medical appointments, the abortion industry pushed to expand its reach through telemedicine abortion.
“Telemedicine abortion” refers to a virtual visit with an abortion provider, resulting in a prescription for the “abortion pill”—the common name for what is actually two medications: mifepristone and misoprostol, which work in tandem.
In the US, the abortion pill is legal up to 10 weeks gestation. Under current FDA regulations, it must be dispensed at a clinic by a licensed provider, after a diagnostic ultrasound. However, many abortion providers have used COVID-19 restrictions to circumvent the FDA regulations, eliminating a clinic visit altogether, or paring it down to a single visit to pick up a prescription. And reproductive rights advocates filed a lawsuit May 27, asking a federal court to suspend restrictions on the abortion pill altogether during the pandemic.
In addition, organizations like Gynuity Health Projects, with its telabortion “study” (as such, it is not subject to the FDA limitation) allow women to obtain the abortion pill through the mail. Gynuity, which currently makes its telabortion services available in 13 states, reported a 30 percent increase in virtual visits during February and March.
Because many women who use the abortion pill never visit a clinic, they sidestep a chance for pro-lifers to reach them with counseling about options. However, the abortion pill combo of mifepristone, which first blocks progesterone in the uterus, killing the unborn baby, and misoprostol, which induces uterine contractions to complete the abortion, provides an opportunity for a second chance. Abortion Pill Reversal (APR) can save a pregnancy if initiated within 72 hours of taking mifepristone. Emergency doses of progesterone work to counteract mifepristone’s effects. APR is not a guarantee, but boasts a 68 percent success rate, with over 750 babies born to date after the process.
Heartbeat International runs the Abortion Pill Rescue Network, which saw a record number of calls to its hotline in March. Heartbeat’s Andrea Trudden, interviewed in Pregnancy Help News April 28, said many of the calls come “from the abortion facility parking lot or from the car on the drive home because the regret is immediate.” In March, the network of health care providers used APR to help more than 100 women give their babies a second chance.
“Women are trying to survive COVID-19. Politicians are trying to take away their care.” “Activists are using COVID-19 to set limits on abortion around the world.”
The headlines reveal the abortion industry’s deep-seated fear that the pandemic, coupled with an upcoming election, could cement limitations on abortion in the United States.
Pro-lifers are horrified that abortion clinics are deemed “essential” and worse yet, “life-sustaining.” The abortion lobby, however, sees only the paltry limitations that the COVID-19 crisis has placed on it. Its ultimate goal is the availability of abortion with absolutely no restrictions, and it is determined to come out of this crisis closer to that goal.
To that end, Planned Parenthood Action Foundation and its allies recently launched a $5 million “accountability” ad campaign covering 11 states, most of them battleground states in the upcoming election. The project aims to inform voters about actions to limit or protect abortion rights during the pandemic. It is part of Planned Parenthood’s largest electoral effort to date, with a goal of spending at least $45 million in key states. The extensive abortion-related media coverage of the last three months laid the groundwork for this, a huge push to elect pro-choice politicians in November.
Were the unborn the smallest victims of coronavirus? Perhaps. For months, our society literally shut down, in order to save lives. And yet, ironically, somehow the effort was twisted into something that made it easier than ever to kill our most vulnerable citizens. Abortion clinics remained open. Social distancing laws gave clinics an opportunity to harass pro-lifers who came out to counsel or pray. Plus, the abortion industry capitalized on the crisis to keep abortion in the headlines, accelerate a trend towards at-home abortions, and pave the way for a massive effort to elect pro-choice candidates in November.
Yet, as one pro-abortion publication put it, “the anti-choice movement is nothing if not persistent.” For every arrest or unpleasant confrontation, there was a baby saved. Hotlines saw a record number of calls. Pregnancy centers reached new clients. And the push for medication abortion was met with renewed focus on helping women who regretted taking the abortion pill. The quiet heroes of the pro-life movement—counselors, hotline staff, lawyers, doctors, prayer warriors, and a host of others—met this season of challenge with courage, creativity, and, most importantly, grace.
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