We look at how people across the U.S. have struggled to access abortions during the pandemic with reporter Amy Littlefield, who says that even before the COVID-19 outbreak, many states had restrictions, including three-day waiting periods and counseling sessions filled with misinformation. Then, many tried to use the pandemic as a pretext for banning abortion as a nonessential service. “Texas, in the early weeks of the pandemic, sort of gave us a dress rehearsal for what it could look like when states try to ban abortion entirely,” says Littlefield. “We saw how half a century worth of attempts to whittle away at abortion access really collided with a deadly pandemic in a way that was just devastating.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We end today’s show looking at how people have struggled to access abortion during the pandemic and how states have tried to use COVID to ban abortion as a nonessential service. Reporter Amy Littlefield writes in The Nation that many saw the pandemic as a, quote, “dry run for the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion and is now in greater peril than ever after the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett,” unquote.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has increased the demand for abortion funds and also for telemedicine abortion, which combines medication abortion, which uses pills to end a pregnancy, and telemedicine, which allows health providers to supervise the procedure remotely.
For more, we are joined by investigative reporter Amy Littlefield, whose new piece in The Nation magazine is headlined “As the Pandemic Raged, Abortion Access Nearly Flickered Out.”
Amy, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about Texas and what happened there during this pandemic and also just in the last weeks.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: Texas, in the early weeks of the pandemic, sort of gave us a dress rehearsal for what it could look like when states try to ban abortion entirely, which I think many expect to happen when the Supreme Court, with its new Trump-appointed anti-choice majority, overturns or overhauls Roe v. Wade.
What happened in Texas is that when the pandemic struck, state officials used that as a pretext to ban abortion as a nonessential service under the guise of preserving PPE. And this was immediately challenged in the courts. And as the legal battle went back and forth over a period of a month, access to abortion in the state switched on and off eight times. And the abortion provider I spoke with, who was on the frontlines of this at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, described a traumatizing situation, where abortion clinic staff became, in her words, “agents of the state’s cruelty,” repeatedly having to call patients, cancel their abortion appointments and tell them they didn’t know when they could reschedule. At times, patients would be sitting in the waiting room about to have their abortion, and the staff would have to come out and say, “I’m sorry, we just got word that this ban is back in place. We’re not going to be able to see you.”
And there was a massive migration of patients, in the midst of this deadly pandemic, who were forced to travel, almost a thousand patients in the month of April alone who sought care in other states. And if you think about that, you know, every time they had to stop at a rest area, every unnecessary encounter with medical staff along the way, that all was a potential infection risk. And so, we saw how half a century worth of attempts to whittle away at abortion access really collided with a deadly pandemic in a way that was just devastating.
And, you know, I was really inspired by some of the feats of heroism, frankly, that abortion funds, which are groups that exist to try to raise money for people to pay for abortions they couldn’t otherwise afford, they moved mountains in order to get people to care. I mean, we’re talking about people driving strangers for hours, flying with them on airplanes. We’re talking about, you know, not just in Texas, but nationwide, people getting into cars with strangers and driving them through the South Dakota cornfields and through the Florida Everglades to get to their appointments. That’s how hard these funds worked.
And yet it still wasn’t enough. And advocates in Texas told me they know that there are patients who were not able to get the care that they needed and who stayed pregnant against their will.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy, what do you think the new Biden administration should do to improve access to abortion, especially in light of the even more conservative Supreme Court that exists today?
AMY LITTLEFIELD: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think there’s some low-hanging fruit that Biden has already indicated he’s going to move on in terms of repealing the Trump administration’s devastating policies undermining abortion access. But there are two ways that President Biden could go further than his Democratic predecessors. And I think, in this moment of crisis, that sort of action is demanded.
And reproductive justice groups are watching very closely to see if Biden will, number one, repeal the long-standing restrictions on medication abortion access that are widely interpreted to require patients to go in person to a health center to get a pill, which is the first step in a medication abortion, and then they can take the rest of the medication home with them. Those long-standing federal requirements were put on hold temporarily, and they’re now back in place, thanks to the Supreme Court, during the pandemic. Biden and his Food and Drug Administration could suspend those rules and overhaul them so that medication abortion can be picked up at a pharmacy or sent to patients from online pharmacies by mail, just like any other drug with that kind of safety record.
The other really important policy, and where reproductive justice groups are watching closely to see if Biden will deliver on his promises, is the Hyde Amendment. This is a 45-year-old ban on federal funding for abortion. And when we talk about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color and Native people in this country, the Hyde Amendment, more than any other policy, has really shifted the burden of abortion access onto communities of color and low-income people. It prevents Medicaid recipients in most states from having their insurance cover their abortion. And it’s really served as a de facto ban on abortion access. And so, if Biden starts to put pressure on Congress to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which he indicated he would on the campaign trail, that would have a revolutionary impact on access in this country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy, you also found some examples where the pandemic actually eased access to abortion. Could you talk about that, as well?
AMY LITTLEFIELD: Right. So, when the federal court, in July, put a hold on these restrictions on mifepristone, the first drug used in medication abortion, we saw digital abortion clinics spring up that were offering telehealth visits and sending abortions by mail. We saw the expansion of existing avenues for accessing those options, because there was such a demand for it. We saw online pharmacies start to ship medication abortion kits.
But these options are only available to patients in states that will allow it. And there are 18 states that have active bans on telemedicine abortion. Ohio, actually, during the pandemic, decided to further restrict abortion access by requiring — by banning telemedicine abortion, you know, in the midst of a time where visiting a medical center could be like a risk to many people. So, we’re really going to potentially see a deeper divide in terms of who’s able to access abortion, depending on where you live and whether you have the money to get out of the place where you live.
AMY GOODMAN: Amy, I wanted to ask you about culture and reproductive rights. Last year, as multiple states moved to further restrict access to abortions during the pandemic, we reported on a powerful new dramatic film called Never Rarely Sometimes Always. It follows a 17-year-old girl as she travels from her small town in Pennsylvania to New York to get an abortion without having to notify her parents. The film is seen as a possible Oscar contender, but at least one Academy Award voter who opposes abortion said he won’t be watching the film. Variety magazine reports that filmmaker Kieth Merrill was asked by an awards publicist if he had seen the film. He replied, “I received the screener but as a Christian, the father of 8 children and 39 grandchildren. AND pro-life advocate, I have ZERO interest in watching a woman cross state lines so someone can murder her unborn child,” unquote. Well, on Friday, the film’s director, Eliza Hittman, posted Merrill’s comment on Instagram and condemned the Oscars’ voting body, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for being, quote, “still so painfully monopolized by an old white puritanical male guard.” She said, “I wonder how many other voters out there won’t watch the film. #oscarssopuritanical.” Can you end by responding to this?
AMY LITTLEFIELD: You know, what really grabs me about that quote, Amy, is the part where the anti-choice man invokes his children and grandchildren. You know, since we last spoke, I’ve become a parent myself. And nothing has made me more convinced of how high the stakes are in this debate than becoming a parent. It has been the most joyful experience of my life. I love my kid. And I got to choose when to have him — maybe not the pandemic part, but the rest of it. And I would not wish this experience on anyone who has not fully opted in. It is glorious work, it is wonderful work, but it is hard work. And we have to stop seeing having children and having families as antithetical to having abortions, because we’re talking about the same people at different moments in their lives, and nobody should be forced to do this against their will.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Amy, you’re giving us all a chance to kvell, because we got to show a picture of little Tully. Congratulations on your baby living through the first year of this pandemic! People can go to our last interview with you, where you talked about what it was like to give birth in the face of what happened last year. And congratulations! We’re going to link to your piece in The Nation. Amy Littlefield, an independent freelance journalist, formerly Democracy Now! producer.
That does it for our show. Happy Birthday to Libby Rainey! Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras. Special thanks to Julie Crosby, Becca Staley. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much.