The Trump Administration Thinks COVID-19 Is No Longer a Risk to Abortion Patients
The Trump administration’s quest to force abortion patients to needlessly risk COVID-19 exposure as a condition of obtaining care has entered its sixth month, and is as violently out of touch with reality as ever.
Following an October order from the Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland is considering new evidence in our lawsuit challenging a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy requiring patients who need a medication used for early abortion care to travel in person to a clinical setting for the sole purpose of picking up a pill and signing a form. That policy has been blocked under a court order we won in July — but Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has continued to fight us every step of the way.
Their latest argument: COVID-19 is no longer a serious risk, so the federal government should be free to force us to risk exposure as a condition of obtaining essential reproductive health care.
This could not be farther from the truth. On Oct. 30, the day the Trump administration filed their latest brief in the district court, nearly 100,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with COVID-19 — then a new global record — and nearly 1,000 people died from it. The United States broke its own record days later, and then again and again; yesterday, a staggering 196,000 new cases and 2,760 new deaths were reported in a single day. The nation’s top infectious disease experts warn that the country “could not possibly be positioned more poorly” for this winter and that we are entering the “most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic.”
Despite the Trump administration’s own experts at the CDC acknowledging that being Black or Hispanic is associated with dramatically higher risks of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, Trump’s lawyers argue that it is no big deal to force medication abortion patients — a majority of whom are Black or Latinx — to unnecessarily incur heightened COVID-19 risk.
Let’s be clear: There is no genuine dispute that forcing people to travel to a health center continues to impose serious COVID-19 risks. That is why the CDC still recommends that patients use telemedicine whenever possible and use mail-order or other delivery services to pick up prescription medications. It is because of this ongoing risk that HHS Secretary Alex Azar renewed the nationwide COVID-19 public health emergency and continues to allow patients to obtain addictive medications like fentanyl and OxyContin through telemedicine.
One look at the Trump administration’s legal filings shows just how flimsy their argument is. Unable to muster a single declaration from any employee at HHS or the FDA to support their argument that travel and personal contact no longer pose a meaningful threat, the administration instead asked the court to rely on declarations from officials in seven states (virtually all of which are already seeing sharp COVID-19 spikes), noting that their states have allowed certain businesses and services to re-open. But these local decisions have nothing to do with our case. Allowing people to voluntarily use in-person services cannot justify a federal mandate forcing higher-risk populations to engage in unnecessary travel and personal contact, regardless of their individual circumstances and their clinicians’ judgment, as a condition of obtaining essential reproductive health care.
Trump administration officials might be committed to maintaining the fantasy that COVID-19 is under control, but we know the truth: The pandemic is still real, still dangerous, and forcing abortion patients to needlessly risk exposure to it still poses real harm to them, their clinicians, and their families — with particularly severe risks for people of color.
The path forward is clear. First, the courts must keep the in-person requirement blocked. And as soon as President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January, he should not only direct the FDA to agree not to enforce the in-person requirement during the public health emergency (precluding the need for further litigation), but also instruct the FDA to undertake a comprehensive review of the full set of restrictions on mifepristone. This will ensure that beyond the pandemic, patients’ access to this safe, effective medication is based on the latest science and medical evidence. Medication abortion — like all abortion services — is essential health care, and we hope to never again see FDA restrictions weaponized for a political, anti-abortion agenda.