Even in a Pandemic, People Still Need Abortions | Opinion

As the coronavirus spreads across the country, people are sheltering in place and canceling most or all non-essential outings, even doctor's appointments. Abortion patients, however, aren't afforded that luxury and now have to navigate a pandemic on top of an already restrictive web of laws.

Imagine trying to get to an abortion appointment without using public transportation while your city is in lockdown and you are without income. That's the reality many of the people who call into the Northwest Abortion Access Fund are living with right now.

We help people pay for and get to abortion appointments in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. However, with the spread of the coronavirus in the Northwest—particularly in Seattle, a destination for many of our later abortion patients—our work has become much more complicated. Every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., I talk to people in need of an abortion who call for our help. I serve as a travel agent, helping them get to clinics by plane, train or bus, with a support person or alone, and I help arrange child care or other assistance as needed.

Our call volume was already at record levels when the year began. Even before COVID-19, 40 percent of Americans said they would have trouble coming up with $400 for an emergency expense—coincidentally, that's around the cost of a first-trimester abortion. Now, we're hearing increased urgency and anxiety from callers. The economy is collapsing, with entire service industries being shuttered, and people are out of work and unsure when their next paycheck will arrive. Yet abortions can't wait.

Every day, we hear from people who are short $100 or $250 or even several thousands of dollars (depending on how far along they are) for their abortion procedure. They spend days and weeks trying to figure out how to save up just enough cash to afford the abortion—even in my home state of Oregon, where our Medicaid insurance covers abortion for everyone. Because it's never just about the cost of the abortion; it's the cost of the gas in your car to get to the nearest clinic, train ticket and child care for your other children, or in my case, a plane ticket to another state and a six-day hotel stay for a later abortion procedure.

Coronavirus travel bans further complicate the problem. Patients could easily get stuck—either at home, without a clinic nearby, or in a new city with no way to get back after the procedure.

To keep everyone safe, we've had to change how we support people seeking abortions. Normally, we rely on volunteers who graciously open their homes to complete strangers who need a place to rest when traveling for care. Now, in adhering to the social distancing standards set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we must instead book hotels.

Seattle coronavirus
Rush-hour traffic is light during the morning commute heading in and out of Seattle on March 15. Many people seeking abortions must head to larger cities, like Seattle, which is now an epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. Karen Ducey/Getty

I wish our nation had a national health care system that could handle the complexities of our lives. I wish we had a robust telemedicine program, so patients could seek care from a provider from the comfort of their own home, without fear of contracting the coronavirus because they have to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest abortion clinic. I wish all patients could self-manage their abortions with pills at home without fear of being arrested, like in many other countries around the world.

At times like this, it feels like right-wing political leaders are dedicated to making access to the most basic of necessities as difficult as possible. Texas and Ohio are including abortions among the nonessential surgeries and medical procedures that they are requiring to be delayed amid the coronavirus crisis. And in Washington, D.C., anti-abortion lawmakers tried to stall the coronavirus relief bill by inserting language that would make the Hyde Amendment—the federal ban on Medicaid and Medicare coverage of abortion—permanent law. This means that people who have health insurance cannot use it for the health care they need, so they are forced to use their last few dollars for a medical procedure and not rent or food during a pandemic.

At a moment when people are in dire need of testing and treatment from this terrifying virus, when hundreds of Americans are dying, right-wing politicians are focused on banning abortion. They are willing to sabotage the health of the nation to score political points with anti-abortion groups. How is that "pro-life"? It makes me furious.

But the thing is, abortion funds were made for this moment. And until America is willing to take a "radical" approach to health care and actually make it accessible to everyone, we will be there for the people who need abortions every day—even during a pandemic.

Beth Vial serves on the board of the Northwest Abortion Access Fund and is the program coordinator at We Testify, an organization dedicated to leadership and representation of people who have abortions.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.