As much of the U.S. remains on lockdown, abortion rights are under attack nationwide. We get an update on the fight for abortion access with Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Our bodies have literally been deemed essential,” she says, “and yet the control of our bodies and the right to control our own bodies has not.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: As the coronavirus continues to spread and much of the United States remains on lockdown, abortion rights are under attack across the country. States, including Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and more, have all attempted to restrict access to abortion as part of their response to the pandemic. Abortions in Texas were briefly effectively banned last week, after a federal appeals court ruled Monday that the state could restrict abortion services as it responds to the pandemic. The Washington Post called the move “the most extreme shutdown of abortion access allowed by federal courts since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision declared access to abortion a constitutional right,” unquote. But Wednesday, Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued a new executive order loosening the restrictions on medical procedures and allowing abortion services to proceed.
The fight over abortion access has sparked a prolonged legal battle and for weeks forced people seeking abortions to leave the state of Texas to receive medical care. Planned Parenthood reported a 706% increase in abortion appointments for people crossing state lines from Texas to providers in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
To look at the ongoing fight for abortion access in Texas, as well as other states, we’re joined by Alexis McGill Johnson, the acting president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She’s joining us from New York City from her home to stop community spread.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Alexis.
ALEXIS McGILL JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, why don’t you just give us a nationwide survey of what’s happening to abortion access in the United States?
ALEXIS McGILL JOHNSON: Absolutely. Look, I mean, as you talked earlier, we’ve already seen how COVID has laid bare the challenges in our public healthcare infrastructure, seeing how many people, particularly low-income people of color, who are experiencing the disproportionate impact of this care — and at the same time that we are all grappling with what it means to live in this pandemic, a number of governors across the country have decided that this pandemic was the right time to create executive orders to restrict more access to abortion. And what we’ve seen is the impact. We’ve seen people continue to get in their cars to drive thousands of miles to Colorado, to California, to New Mexico, just out of Texas, to seek access to get medication abortion, which is just two pills taken over 24 hours.
And, you know, we’ve been in a pushback, in a legal pushback, with a number of states, as well as with our circuit court judges, and there’s been an incredible emotional whiplash related to it, as our providers have been calling patients and telling them that their appointments are now canceled or that they in fact have to seek another method. And so, this is really unconscionable, the fact that people would use a pandemic to restrict access to healthcare, when in fact we should be trying to identify ways to expand healthcare.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk, for example, about Texas, the battle that’s been going on in the courts — and this happens in other places, as well, in Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma — as the governor attempts to restrict abortion. And what’s happening at the court level, one after another decisions?
ALEXIS McGILL JOHNSON: We were in court like over four times in the last couple of weeks with our partners on the ground. And essentially, where we are now is that the governor is trying to loosen the restriction, in fact, because he’s trying to open the state, which shows you that this was just a sham to begin with — right? — that the real concern around spreading access to — spreading COVID, using abortion as a guise for that really is not legitimate. And so, right now we have a loosened restriction in Texas. But there are other states where we’re continuing to fight.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Alabama, what’s happening there, the preliminary injunction that treats abortion like all medical care, allowing physicians to provide abortion using their medical judgment?
ALEXIS McGILL JOHNSON: Yes. I mean, you know, I’m not — in terms of all the specifics with respect to Alabama and with Tennessee, I think, you know, it is — we’re using everything at our measure, in a sense, that — right? — we have to be able to defend access to abortion in these various states with these executive orders coming down. And what we’re trying to do is ensure that people seeking abortion get access as immediately as they can.
And so, I think when you look back in the bigger picture, what you’re seeing is a number of restrictions around abortion. Just last year, there were 300 restrictions that were introduced in 47 states across the country. And so, what we’re looking at is an infrastructure that has really tried to limit access to abortion. And when you layer a pandemic on top of that, we’re feeling, obviously, the impact of that. Many states — there are five states now that are essentially abortion deserts, where it’s very difficult to access. And we’re adding these additional restrictions on it, which makes it even more unsustainable.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you referred to as “medication abortion.” Explain — you’ve got the surgery, the procedure, and you’ve got the double pill.
ALEXIS McGILL JOHNSON: Yes. Medication abortion is offered earlier in the gestational period, and it really requires just two pills that the person seeking abortion would take within a 24-hour period. And so, this is not a procedure that requires an extensive amount of PPE. It doesn’t require — you know, in many cases, we’re able to see a patient now, with the expansion of telehealth, via Skype, like this, intake the patient, and then drive — and that patient will come and pick up the prescription and go home and take that medication safely at home. And then we are able to do follow-up care, again via telehealth, in much the same way that the rest of the country is operating right now on telehealth, telemedicine.
And so, you know, what we’re seeing is our patients are driving, again, a thousand miles. Think about this. Women are the majority of healthcare workers. We’re the majority of people homeschooling right now. We are the majority of essential workers. Our bodies have literally been deemed essential, and yet our bodies — the control of our bodies and the right to control our own bodies has not. And so we’re seeing them drive thousands of miles to get two pills and then get back in a car and drive another thousand miles back home through these various states, in ways that are incredibly unsafe.
AMY GOODMAN: Alexis McGill Johnson, you co-authored a piece for Essence magazine last week headlined “Your Job Is Deemed Essential, But Your Abortion Is Not: Black Low-Wage Women in Texas Are Being Robbed of Their Humanity.” In it, you wrote, quote, “Nonwhite women are more likely to hold jobs deemed ‘essential’ than any other demographic. … Even though your job has been deemed essential, your humanity, your ability to earn a living wage, your ability to access health care — pandemic or not — is not. And now in the state of Texas (and several others) your legal ability to access abortion is currently up in the air for a court to decide.” Explain the demographics that you’re talking about, and talk about women of color accessing abortion being even more challenged.
ALEXIS McGILL JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is really what we’ve seen in the public health infrastructure around COVID, right? We’ve seen just the number of deaths, right? COVID is touching all of us regardless of age and class and race. And yet the folks who are dying, the folks who are being most subjected to fatality, are largely black and Latinx in major urban areas. And this challenge — right? — that our access to public healthcare infrastructure has already been challenged, and then you layer on bias, you layer on patterns and systems of discrimination over centuries, quite frankly, that have concluded, in fact, that we are — particularly women of color are the ones who are not able to get the right amount of care. So, when you layer on other challenges around black maternal mortality, regardless of income, our bodies literally are much more subject to dying during childbirth or just thereafter because of the bias built into discrimination in the system.
And when I look at these executive orders in states that are the same states that did not expand Medicaid, you know, states who have been layering on these restrictions largely for low — affecting low-income women of color, to me, it’s no surprise that we’re the ones being called in. We’re the ones who are being asked to be essential workers, and yet our ability to actually control our own bodies and to really control our own futures and freedom is being denied by the state.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the issue of women getting access, what you recommend, where access is challenged? I mean, even before the pandemic, the closing of women’s health clinics, so often you can have a situation where there’s only one or two in a state. And this new service that you are now offering, telehealth services, offering information about sexual and reproductive health?
ALEXIS McGILL JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely. It is actually a silver lining in this pandemic, that Planned Parenthood and many other health providers have actually been able to really lean into telehealth infrastructure and provide service. I think the quote was something like “We’ve moved 10 years in 10 days.” And that is actually, you know, the fact that we will be in all 50 states by the end of this month to provide access to STI screenings, to family planning, to HIV PEP and PrEP, and, in much the same way as I said, to provide some wraparound service around getting access to abortion. That’s given us a lifeline into communities, particularly areas where the shelter-in-place bans are going to continue, as well as rural areas, where there may not be access to healthcare broadly. But again, this is a silver lining for some.
And again, in many states, the challenge to — you know, COVID is essentially accelerating a big concern that we should all have about the impact not just of Roe being overturned, but literally of watching it being gutted by these restrictions year after year after year, over the last decade, in particular. And so, we have to think about how we’re going to support and how we’re going to get the 25 million women who live in states that are increasingly restrictive, access to safe and legal abortion, should they need it. And that’s currently the planning that we’re working on right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Alexis McGill Johnson, we want to ask you to stay with us as we move into our next segment. Alexis McGill Johnson is the acting president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. When we come back, as multiple states try to restrict access to abortion during the pandemic, we’re going to look at a powerful new dramatic film that follows a 17-year-old girl as she travels from her small town in Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion without having to notify her parents. The film is called Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Intermezzo” by the Met Orchestra. That’s the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which performed remotely together over the weekend as part of their “At-Home Gala.”
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