GOP governors force people to travel hundreds of miles for basic health care

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Republican lawmakers are forcing delays in care that could leave abortion, which is protected by the Constitution, out of reach for many.

Governors in several states are using coronavirus as an excuse to ban abortion in their states for the duration of the pandemic. The bans will inevitably force some people into having an abortion later in their pregnancy — if they're able to access abortion services at all. That's particularly true given that more than one-third of states ban most abortions after the 20-week mark.

All of these proposed bans have one key thing in common: They would all result in substantial increases in the distances people would have to travel to get an abortion. 

Ohio, Texas, Alabama, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kentucky have all tried to ban or seriously limit abortion access during the pandemic. They claim abortion is a "nonessential" procedure and cite the need to concentrate access to personal protective equipment for those working with coronavirus patients as the underlying justification for the ban. 

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Physicians at Planned Parenthood Center for Choice, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the Texas ban, determined that even a delay of 30 days or fewer increases risks to their patients or makes abortion "completely inaccessible." Put another way, doctors consider abortion "essential care" because a delay in providing that care can create a situation where abortion, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, isn't available at all.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that looks at laws affecting women's health care, all of the states seeking to restrict abortion during the pandemic have a history of efforts to ban abortion.

In Texas, the new ban requires patients to travel out of state, going nearly 20 times the previous distance — from an average of 12 miles to an average of 243 miles — to obtain abortion care.

The same is true for the other states that are attempting to ban abortion during the pandemic. Travel distances would increase by over 300% in Alabama and Iowa. In Ohio, patients would need to travel an average of 120 miles, a 700% increase over the status quo. In Oklahoma, patients would need to travel over 10 times farther to get abortion care outside the state. 

It's also not as simple as merely traveling farther. The Guttmacher Institute noted that the problems caused by the bans would be "further compounded" if the closest alternative state required in-person counseling, which can require multiple trips prior to obtaining an abortion, or if the nearby state has few abortion clinics itself. 

An examination of Texas' ban found that increased travel could result in many abortions being pushed to later in pregnancy or in patients being unable to get an abortion at all. 

Abortions later in pregnancy are potentially riskier, and obtaining them can be more difficult and more expensive. Bans also require people to leave their home states and travel substantial distances during a deadly pandemic. 

As Guttmacher points out, "Extended travel, or any travel, during the COVID-19 crisis flies in the face of basic public health recommendations and, in some cases, legal orders." 

Rather than help solve a public health crisis, the study shows that abortion bans are exacerbating existing health care access problems, creating unnecessary risks by pushing abortions later into pregnancy, and requiring extended travel at a time when it is especially dangerous. Abortion delayed may result in abortion denied. 

Many of the new bans are in a state of flux as courts address the issues. Currently, Texas' ban appears headed for the U.S. Supreme Court after the state largely prevailed at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the plaintiffs appealed. Alabama's ban was just enjoined by a federal judge. In Iowa, litigation by the ACLU has resulted in a truce of sorts: While many abortions remain blocked, doctors may consider that state's 20-week ban in assessing which abortions can still be considered "essential." A federal injunction remains in effect in Ohio stopping a ban from taking effect there. 

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.