How Red States Are Using the Coronavirus to Drastically Restrict Access to Abortion

How Red States Are Using the Coronavirus to Drastically Restrict Access to Abortion

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While the country has been battling the spread of COVID-19, there’s been a disturbing but unsurprising trend happening in women’s access to reproductive rights. Since the White House first issued social distancing guidelines in mid-March, eight states have temporarily banned abortion services under the guise of public health. In Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia, anti-choice governors implemented intermittent bans and encumbering restrictions on a constitutionally-protected right by categorizing the procedure as a non-essential service and as an elective surgical procedure.

The crux of the argument offered by these states is that medical equipment is in high demand and that a ban helps states shore up their supply of medical gear for hospitals overwhelmed with the virus. But even the most rudimentary survey of the recent legislative history against reproductive rights in the eight states taking drastic action limiting women’s access to abortion services during the current crisis pulls the curtain back on the story that this is about public health. With the exception of Iowa, which has provided some exceptions in its coronavirus order, the recent actions are simply a copy-and-paste replica of extreme anti-abortion efforts that failed previously in state legislatures or in the courts—and they refuse to make commonsense exceptions, like allowing medication abortions (which are administered through a pill and do not require the use of medical equipment needed to treat COVID-19 patients) that make the principle purpose of these measures obvious.

And while these are temporary bans, the consequences of them are anything but temporary for the women who are now forced to continue on with pregnancies against their will. A delay of a few weeks can push women past increasingly restrictive time-sensitive week limits many states have on the books—forcing women to carry an undesired pregnancy to term. It could also force a woman to undergo a second trimester abortion instead of earlier term, creating an increased risk of complications and harm to her health. And as the plaintiffs noted in their petition against Texas’ COVID-19 abortion ban, delaying abortions does nothing to ease the burden on hospitals, because “individuals will require more health care – even in the short-term – if they remain pregnant…and some will engage in risky, out-of-state travel in an attempt to access earlier abortion services, thus increasing contagion risks in the midst of a pandemic.”

Governors and state legislatures should focus on actually protecting their citizens, not using emergency powers to pursue a divisive and unconstitutional agenda.

Governors and state legislatures should focus on actually protecting their citizens, not using emergency powers to pursue a divisive and unconstitutional agenda. If that’s not what’s happening here, as several governors have claimed, it’s a mighty coincidence. Every single state that has tried to limit abortion in this crisis has a clear anti-choice agenda and a pattern of trying to pass restrictive reproductive freedom legislation in its recent history. No state that was not already engaged in anti-choice efforts has found it necessary or productive to put in place these kinds of limitations.

Here is a breakdown of the recent actions taken against reproductive freedom by the states where governors have moved to ban or significantly limit abortion access under the guise of public health and as a supposed COVID-19 response effort.


The Alabama legislature has been one of the most extreme anti-choice legislative bodies in the country. In late March, as a response to the coronavirus, the Alabama Department of Public Health banned all abortions, including medication abortions, without an exception for cases of rape or incest. The order also imposes a misdemeanor conviction on doctors who violate the order. Similarly, in 2019, the state passed a near-total ban on all abortions. Like the COVID-19 order, the ban did not include an exception for rape, incest, or medication abortions, and imposed a felony conviction of violating doctors. The bill was eventually blocked by a federal judge in October.


In April, the Arkansas Department of Health closed-down the state’s sole abortion clinic through an order that includes no exceptions for rape or incest. In 2019, the state legislature instituted a trio of anti-choice restrictions, including an 18-week ban, a ban on abortions sought after a diagnosis of Down syndrome, and a cumbersome admitting privileges requirement. All three restrictions were eventually blocked in federal court. 


Louisiana ordered all “non-emergency” surgical procedures, including abortions, closed in March. The order does not include exceptions for cases of rape or incest. In 2019, the state passed a fetal heartbeat bill that bans abortions as early as six weeks, containing no exceptions for rape or incest. Despite passing the state legislature, the bill has been delayed from implementation pending a federal court ruling on a similar state law in Mississippi.


Ohio instituted a temporary ban on all surgical abortions in March—with no exceptions for rape or incest and without a provision for medication abortions in the initial bill. In 2019, the state passed a fetal heartbeat bill, without an exception for rape or incest, that was blocked by a federal court in July.


Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order banning surgical abortions in March. The ban includes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Over the past year, Tennessee Republicans have fought hard to pass a variety of anti-choice legislation. In 2019, they passed a Roe trigger law, immediately banning abortion if Roe is ever overturned. And before the pandemic, Tennessee Republicans were planning to introduce their own fetal heartbeat bill.

West Virginia

West Virginia issued a ban on abortions as part of its closure of non-essential medical procedures. Like the other states, West Virginia’s ban does not provide an exception for rape or incest. In 2015, West Virginia passed a restrictive 20-week abortion ban.


Slowing the spread of COVID-19 continues to be a daunting challenge—and we’ve been forced to face a new normal because of it. However, leading health providers have continued to call on states to consider abortion an “essential component of comprehensive health care.” Anti-choice governors have clumsily and plainly tried to spin a global pandemic in their political favor to accomplish through state emergency powers what they couldn’t through the legislative process. Instead of driving division, we need our state governments focused on keeping everyone in their jurisdiction safe and well. 

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