“Pandemic is used as cover”: Alexis McGill Johnson of Planned Parenthood on dangerous new war on abortion


In any serious crisis, civil rights are also in grave danger. And with COVID-19 sweeping the country, some politicians have seized the pandemic as an opportunity to restrict access to abortion. A handful of Republican-led states – including Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi – have sought to effectively ban abortion, claiming that this was a “non-essential” procedure. Against this backdrop, Planned Parenthood and its partners are scrambling to protect access and have taken legal action against the bans, successfully securing restraining orders in some states to block them. But in Texas, abortion is currently banned after Republican governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order to end abortion in the state, and conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judges subsequently upheld the policy, which is expected to remain in effect at least until April 21.

Vanity Fair‘s Hive spoke with Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood Interim President and CEO, on how anti-abortion politicians seek to exploit the coronavirus crisis with a wave of abortion bans, under the guise of public health amidst the pandemic.

Vanity Fair: Explain to me what we have seen in these states like Alabama, Ohio, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Texas amid the coronavirus pandemic that Planned Parenthood is so concerned about right now.

Alexis McGill Johnson: First, I think it is important to state that abortion is an essential and urgent medical procedure, and we know that reproductive rights are essential. And right now what we have in various states across the country are anti-abortion politicians using this pandemic to play politics with our health. They do this by delaying, by creating barriers to care, by trying to make it more difficult for patients to access a safe and legal abortion. They take measures like decrees. We’ve seen bans in states – Texas, Ohio, Iowa, Oklahoma, Alabama – where they’re basically trying to say that because of the pandemic all non-essential health care should be stopped and banned. And we firmly believe that abortion is an essential and urgent medical procedure. We believe women need access now.

Just to clarify the position of politicians in these states, they are trying to argue that abortion is not an essential procedure, thus effectively banning it, and Planned Parenthood takes the opposite position?

Look, it’s not just family planning that says abortion is essential. It is also the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and [other] medical associations which also understand that if we are just basing ourselves on understanding how pregnancy works and how abortion works, we just have to delay abortion for a few weeks. It is therefore extremely important to help women who need it now. And that’s where we are and, obviously, a lot of our partners.

What I would like to add to that is the idea that they are using the pandemic and the ban on non-essential services under the guise of protecting people – the more people there are able to shelter in place, which allows people not to be exposed. They use a framework where abortion is not essential to further force people to stay in place. And patients have called our California clinics from the state of Texas because they are so worried about having a procedure, which means they get on planes, they get on buses, they ride hundreds of kilometers across the country. to access an urgent medical procedure. This means that they may also need child care. Women make up the majority of health care workers, so we can effectively exclude health care providers from their responsibilities.

This idea that it’s about protecting communities from the pandemic really falls apart when you see how people react to it because it’s urgent.

What is the status of the ban in Texas, which is sort of an outlier?

In Texas, the ban was appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. And the Fifth Circuit – rather than comply with a temporary restraining order, which would take a few weeks to review the case – it used an extraordinary measure to allow Governor Greg Abbott to significantly restrict abortion using his decree.

I think what is really important to understand here is that there is no other form of health care targeted this way, only abortion. When we see these bans, these specific attacks on abortion providers, it’s really important to look at them in the context of how other healthcare providers are treated. And you can see that we are distinguished.

Do you expect governors of other states to issue executive orders, as Governor Abbott in Texas did, or other states to take equally extraordinary steps to limit access to abortion?

It is really clear that politicians are harnessing the fear and urgency of this moment to push their political agenda to ban abortion and that we will continue to see those with this ideological agenda being pushed to keep doing more.

I remind people that these are the same politicians who have been eroding public health infrastructure for decades. This is one of the reasons we are currently struggling with this pandemic, with a shortage of providers, a shortage of health insurance. These are the same people who refuse to extend Medicaid. These are the same people who supported forcing organizations like Planned Parenthood out of Title X. You have to connect the dots here. It’s a time when the pandemic is used as a cover to really push a horrific political agenda around abortion.

Looking specifically at Texas, what are the next steps for Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union in this fight and Governor Abbott’s extraordinary measure?

It is an extraordinary measure. We cannot speculate on what the immediate next step will be. I will say that we are monitoring a number of other states and we continue to do everything in our power to fight for our patients. We continue to support people who have to leave the state, who need access, as I mentioned before. Here is the work. We are responding to the crisis appropriately by being there for our patients.

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