Coronavirus fuels abortion debate as states restrict access to procedure

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The coronavirus has poured fuel on to the fire of an already raging debate surrounding abortion access as both sides discuss whether pandemic-related restrictions on medical care should apply to abortion clinics, as well.

On Tuesday, a long list of pro-life leaders sent a letter demanding that the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) refrain from promoting abortion during the pandemic. Signed by leaders such as Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, the letter complained that abortion clinics were putting women at risk by sidestepping guidelines surrounding elective medical procedures.

"While surgery centers postpone elective and diagnostic procedures, abortion centers are churning out surgical and chemical abortions and putting women, especially the poor, at risk," the letter reads. "Their continued operation depletes sorely needed personal protective equipment and leads to complications that will further overwhelm already overextended emergency rooms."

HHS did not immediately respond to Fox News' request for comment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is housed under HHS, advises health care facilities to "delay inpatient and outpatient elective surgical and procedural cases."

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Ohio and Texas specifically directed abortion clinics to delay surgical abortions, describing them as non-essential services during the outbreak of COVID-19. Both states included exceptions for the health of the mother.

NARAL, a leading pro-choice organization, seemed to criticize those states' decisions when it tweeted that "abortion care is essential. Full stop."

The group has also blamed the administration for not doing enough to fund health care during the pandemic, nor ease restrictions on medicinal abortions obtained via telemedicine. Planned Parenthood similarly panned abortion restrictions as a way of playing politics with a public health emergency.

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"The safety and health of patients, our staff, and our communities must remain the highest priority as our country faces an unprecedented crisis," Planned Parenthood Acting President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson said.

"Delays or additional barriers to care can make it more difficult or even impossible for some patients to access safe, legal abortion," she continued. "While we continue to provide critical care during this pandemic and work with our partner health care providers, we must still ensure that patients can access the services they need. Unfortunately, while public health providers are working together in our communities to be there for patients whose health care can’t wait, some anti-abortion activists are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to push their ideological agenda. This is not the time for politicians or groups to advance their own agenda by taking advantage of a worldwide pandemic.”

Pro-choice groups generally argue that abortion is "safe," a claim that pro-life advocates ridicule given its impact on the unborn child and potential for complications. Former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson decried abortion clinic conditions in a statement provided to Fox News. Her organization runs a project -- CheckMyClinic.org -- that tracks health violations at clinics around the country.

"The abortion industry," the pro-life advocate said, "is scrambling to figure out how to stay in business and continue to rake in money during this pandemic ... Waiting rooms in clinics are often packed. Abortion clinics aren't known for their pristine hygiene -- look at any state health department report to find violations like failing to sanitize equipment, rips and tears in tables, unlicensed staff."

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She added: "They argue that their services are finite and therefore essential. That's accurate. I mean at some point the 'pregnancy' becomes a baby, right? And then it can't be aborted and that's what the abortion industry is so scared of."

The controversy came after a series of events -- including a recent Supreme Court case -- reignited debate about the safety and benefits of abortion.

Pamela Whitehead, who leads the CheckMyClinic project, was more detailed about Texas' and Ohio's clinics. Both states include clinics that don't comply with health and safety regulations, she said.

"Preterm Clinic in Ohio has a documented history of botched abortions," she said.

She added that "at [Planned Parenthood] in Bedford Heights, medical records weren't accurate and complete. In Texas, we've seen repeated violations at Planned Parenthood and private clinics ... for not wearing PPE [personal protective equipment] in the surgical suite, ripped exam tables, failure to properly sterilize instruments, unqualified staff."

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Planned Parenthood has repeatedly defended itself as a quality health care provider. The organization told Fox News it intended to follow through on Ohio's regulations.

“We are complying with the Ohio Department of Health’s order regarding personal protective equipment, which requires hospitals and surgical facilities to stop providing non-essential surgeries and procedures and take other steps to reduce the use of equipment in short supply," said Iris E. Harvey and Kersha Deibel, Presidents and CEOs of PPSWO.

"PPSWO’s [Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region's] attorney immediately responded to Ohio Attorney General Yost’s letter, assuring him that PPSWO was complying with Director Acton’s order. Under that order, Planned Parenthood can still continue providing essential procedures, including surgical abortion, and our health centers continue to offer other health care services that our patients depend on. Our doors remain open for this care."

In recent months, both sides of the abortion debate have challenged the other's narrative about the potential pitfalls of the procedure. Pro-choice advocates point to a study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, whose author argued that abortions in the U.S. were "safe and effective." The study looked at four different types of abortion, including medicinal abortions, which have received heightened attention as COVID-19 made traveling to or staying in health care facilities more hazardous. The report determined that complications for all types of abortion were "rare."

Mayo Clinic advises that surgical abortions can perforate a woman's uterus and may result in infection, although it says infections are "rare." Pro-life advocates also argue that medicinal abortions can lead to hemorrhaging for the mother. The issue came to a head earlier this year when media outlets suggested a study highlighted the dangers of a treatment designed to reverse the effects of an abortion pill. The study, which had a small sample size, actually showed how dangerous the medication really was, pro-life advocates said.

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NARAL said on Tuesday that it was "absolutely absurd" that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wouldn't reconsider restrictions on medicinal abortions obtained through telemedicine: "During a pandemic, the government should be doing everything it can to make care more accessible, not less."

In a statement to Vice, the FDA said its regulations were necessary to ensure that the "benefits" of the medication outweighed its "risks."

“Certain restrictions, known as a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS), are necessary for mifepristone when used for medical termination of early pregnancy in order to ensure that the benefits of the drug outweigh its risks,” the agency told the outlet.