Pandemic Opens A New Front In The Battle Over Abortion Access : The NPR Politics Podcast Should abortion count as an essential medical service during the coronavirus outbreak? States disagree, prompting court fights. And lawmakers differ on what a fourth round of rescue legislation should look like. This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and national correspondent Sarah McCammon.
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Pandemic Opens A New Front In The Battle Over Abortion Access

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Pandemic Opens A New Front In The Battle Over Abortion Access

Pandemic Opens A New Front In The Battle Over Abortion Access

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hey there. Before we start the show, I need to ask a favor. It's a tough time for a lot of people right now. And NPR is here every day with the news, whenever you're ready to hear it. In fact, some stations have even canceled their fundraising drives to make sure you can get the latest news you need to keep safe and informed. But those fundraising drives are the main source of money for many stations. And I was hoping that our listeners might be able to help them fill the gap. Helping local stations helps us make the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. So if you're able, please head to to give what you can. Thanks.

DAN SITES: Hi. This is Dr. Dan Sites (ph). I'm an emergency physician on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic here in beautiful Indianapolis. I'm here to remind you to stay home for us as we go to work for you. This podcast was recorded at...

DAVIS: 2:11 p.m. on Tuesday, March 31.

SITES: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I hope the only thing you've changed is moving from the kitchen table to the couch. Here's the show.


TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I've moved from the kitchen table to the home office.

DAVIS: That is the most cheerful ER doctor. He sounded so happy to be on the front lines of a pandemic. I really like his positive attitude. It makes me feel a little bit brighter.

KEITH: Yeah, and we are all staying home for him and for all of us. I promise you I am on my couch.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: I'm in my closet.


KEITH: That's - that counts. That counts.

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KEITH: And I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And the coronavirus outbreak has put a pause in many states on elective medical procedures. And in many places, that means abortion, too. Our old friend Sarah McCammon has been following that for NPR, and she joins us now.

Hey, Sarah.

MCCCAMMON: Hi. Good to talk to you.

DAVIS: It's great to have you back in the podcast family.

MCCCAMMON: Yeah. Since we're all so lonely and far apart, it's always nice to check back in, even if it's to talk about news.

DAVIS: Well, we're - you're on today because we want to talk about something I wasn't actually anticipating talking about in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, which is abortion rights, which is an issue that has suddenly and recently creeped into this debate. What's going on?

MCCCAMMON: Yeah. I have to say, you know, I asked around at the beginning of the pandemic because this is my beat. And I, you know, was sort of talking to experts and said, is there any effect on reproductive health care, reproductive rights? And I didn't hear a lot right away. But then - and I was thinking, you know, maybe we wouldn't because all the focus is on this coronavirus. But as one expert I talked to this week said to me, abortion is such a political issue, people will find a way to fight about it at any moment, even during a pandemic.

And what we're seeing is basically a lot of red states - a lot of states led by Republican officials - saying abortion should be considered an elective procedure, a nonessential procedure. And these orders that we've seen in lots of states to suspend elective procedures they say should apply to abortion. Of course, you're seeing reproductive rights groups pushing back against that.

DAVIS: I guess the big question, then, is, what is an elective procedure?

MCCCAMMON: Right. And you know, different states - most of the states, if you read through the executive orders, have defined them. Generally, the principle is things that you can put off without adversely affecting the patient - so conditions that won't get substantially worse if you wait. But of course, the question is, is an abortion an elective procedure? Well, reproductive rights advocates and reproductive health groups, like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, would say, no, it's not an elective procedure. If a woman wants to have an abortion, needs to have an abortion, you can't really wait for that because of the nature of pregnancy.

DAVIS: Well, that goes sort of to the abortion rights argument that abortion is health care, that if you're denying them those services, then you're denying people basic health care rights.

MCCCAMMON: Yeah, and this is something that - you know, this is not a new argument, basically, that as the abortion issue is debated, you know, in the Supreme Court and in legislatures, often, you see similar debates about whether or not abortion should be considered health care. And that's a big message from abortion rights groups - is, look; women will always - they've always needed abortions at times. They will always seek abortions. They will find ways to get them, whether it's legal or not. And of course, abortion rights opponents would say, you know, they don't consider this a health care procedure. They consider it morally wrong, and so they put it in a different category.

DAVIS: Right. So have any states effectively halted abortion procedures?

MCCCAMMON: Well, yesterday, a group of reproductive rights organizations talked to reporters about this. And what we were told is that in some states, including Texas - that hundreds of patients actually had been turned away. So Helene Krasnoff of Planned Parenthood says that like all other health care providers, abortion providers are doing their best to protect their patients and reduce unnecessary use of protective equipment. But she says that Republican officials in some of these red states are taking advantage of the situation.

HELENE KRASNOFF: What we're seeing now is politicians step in and completely ban access, resulting in leaving women with the only options of traveling out of state, attempting to self-manage an abortion or being forced to carry to term because, you know, pregnancy doesn't stop during a pandemic.

MCCCAMMON: Now, I should say that in several states now - as of this taping, three states so far - Texas, Ohio and Alabama - federal judges have weighed in and said these orders can't be applied to abortion. Abortion has to be allowed to continue. And there are some legal challenges underway in other states, including Iowa. So this is an unfolding situation. But what advocates tell me is that there are patients who haven't been able to get procedures they're seeking.

DAVIS: It's so tricky, though, because if - I mean, I'm looking at news out of places like New York City. And the idea that your doctors are basically saying, if you don't have to go into a medical clinic, if you don't have to go to a hospital or some other health care provider, don't. Don't do it.

And so it does seem like that just reality of the moment has allowed - has given sort of the abortion debate, which is always sort of political and very heated, a moment to sort of halt it because there is actually a public health reason for people not to go anywhere near these hospitals unless they think their life is genuinely at risk.

MCCCAMMON: Right. And that's sort of the argument you're hearing from the anti-abortion side of this debate. Groups like the Susan B. Anthony List say, look; every other health care provider in the country is cutting back everything they can. And I mean, obviously, these are groups that oppose abortion, so they're eager to see a suspension or an end to abortion at any time. So it's important to say that. But the argument they make is that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers should just do the same thing and cancel these procedures.

KEITH: Sarah, where do you see this going in the courts?

MCCCAMMON: Well, as we said, so far, three - in three cases, federal judges have weighed in and said that states can't do this. They can't suspend abortions during the coronavirus pandemic, that - at least in one case, the judge said that violates Roe v. Wade and other Supreme Court precedent.

But I talked to one legal scholar, Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University, who is curious about how this will affect sort of the overarching move on the Supreme Court to, a lot of legal experts think, restrict abortion rights. Of course, we've got two of President Trump's nominees on the court now. A lot of people are watching and waiting and expecting that gradually, abortion rights will be eroded. But Mary Ziegler said she thinks this could happen more quickly, potentially if the justices are able to invoke an emergency situation.

MARY ZIEGLER: The Supreme Court - and particularly members of this group like John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh, who might be gun-shy about decimating abortion rights quickly - might feel more comfortable doing that if they can invoke public health or some kind of national crisis as cover for what they're choosing to do.

KEITH: Sarah, how likely do you think that really is?

MCCCAMMON: It's really hard to say. And Mary Ziegler said you can never predict what the court's going to do. You know, there are mechanisms by which the court could weigh in in an emergency situation, but this is certainly not on their docket anytime soon. But what we do know is that these cases are moving through the courts, through the federal courts. And even at this time of crisis, federal judges are seeing these cases as worthy of weighing in on right now.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about possible phase four legislation to address the coronavirus pandemic.

And we're back. And the ink is barely dry on the $2 trillion economic rescue package just signed into law. But already, some people in Washington are talking about phase four legislation - what needs to come next. And Tam, President Trump has some ideas.

KEITH: He does. So on Friday, like, right after he signed the legislation, he was asked if a phase four might be necessary. And he said that that's something that they're going to have to look into because the states are going to need help. He says they've been hurt very badly.

Then we went a few days without hearing anything. And today, he tweeted - and I'm going to do my favorite thing, which is reading presidential tweets - he says, with interest rates for the United States being at zero, this is the time to do our decades-long-awaited infrastructure bill. It should be very big and bold, $2 trillion and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once-great infrastructure of our country, exclamation point, phase four.

DAVIS: So we're back to infrastructure week.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, like, infrastructure weeks have typically been, like, really challenging news weeks.

DAVIS: How many infrastructure weeks is this?

KEITH: We're in, like, definitely infrastructure month right now.

DAVIS: Yeah.

KEITH: It's a kind of infinity at this point.

DAVIS: I mean, is this - this is something, obviously, that's come up again and again as a potential opportunity for bipartisan cooperation. Is it right now?

KEITH: Everybody likes to spend money on roads, bridges, airports, infrastructure. All of that stuff's good stuff. It means jobs. It means growth. The challenge that has been crippling Washington for years on this - although there has been elements of transportation and infrastructure spending, but clearly nothing along the scope of what the president's suggesting - is that they've never been able to agree how to pay for it. You know, Democrats wanted to do things - and some Republicans - like raise gas taxes or just add to the deficit or raise taxes on corporations - all those kind of familiar policy ideas.

And the reason why I'm - think that maybe this could be a more serious conversation than it has been in the past is one of the things that $2 trillion legislation just taught us is that, one, Washington is really eager to spend whatever it takes right now to get the country back going. And they don't really care about the deficit right now. That's not the main driver of the issue.

And you know, President Trump is saying this week he wants an infrastructure bill, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the exact same thing just yesterday. She's already also talking about phase four legislation that she says is going to be necessary. And she's describing it not so much about addressing the emergency but focusing on the recovery, what's going to be needed for a comeback. And she had a conference call with reporters yesterday.


NANCY PELOSI: This fourth bill would be about recovery - emergency, mitigation, recovery. And recovery would include in it some of the emergency and mitigation factors. But it was also - be about where we go from here. There are infrastructure needs that our country had that directly relate to how we are proceeding with the coronavirus.

KEITH: The power dynamic in Washington right now, though, is one where if Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi agree on the same thing, it can happen. They've done it on phase two legislation, phase three legislation. They did it on the USMCA, the rewrite of the trade law. I mean, they have - they share almost nothing politically, but when they do agree, they are completely able to bring everybody else along with them. So if the president and the speaker are seriously talking about potentially doing another big, massive piece of legislation, you could probably drag enough Republicans on board, even if they're not really that excited about doing it.

DAVIS: So how soon are we talking about? I mean, both the president and Nancy Pelosi are talking about creating jobs and looking ahead. But of course, we're still in the middle of a crisis - a public health crisis. Do we have a sense of the timetable here?

KEITH: Well, they're not in town, right?

DAVIS: Right.

KEITH: Well, they're - one, they're not here, and they won't be - Congress won't be back until at least April 20. I think that's probably a pretty optimistic deadline, considering that the president has already extended sort of the request for everyone to stay at home through the end of the month. You know, I don't know about timeline 'cause I think Republicans, as I said, are kind of reluctant to do anything really quickly. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was on the Hugh Hewitt radio show and said he was pretty suspicious of Nancy Pelosi's ideas. He wasn't embracing them.


MITCH MCCONNELL: You know, I think you have to genuinely be aware of the speaker in a situation like this. I'm reminded of what Rahm Emanuel said during the financial crisis - never let a crisis go to waste. What that meant was seize on the crisis to try to achieve unrelated policy items that you have not been able to get under other circumstances.

KEITH: And I just have to say that state budgets are going to be a big problem in the next couple of months.

DAVIS: Huge.

KEITH: They're - they have massive expenses to - you know, they're out buying masks and ventilators. And they're spending - they're outlaying huge amounts of money to try to deal with this crisis. At the same time, their tax revenues are just going to be decimated. And I just don't know how states are going to balance those budgets unless they get some help from the federal government.

DAVIS: And Sarah, there's some news out of Texas while we've been doing this podcast.

MCCCAMMON: Right. It looks like that - basically, under another federal court ruling, it looks like the Texas attorney general has successfully gotten a higher court to lift that order, which basically means that at least for now, the order stands. Abortions are considered a nonessential procedure in Texas and have to stop for the time being - at least nonemergency ones. But that could change. All of this can change very quickly.

DAVIS: All right. That is it for us for today. Sarah, thanks so much for coming on on the podcast. It was great to have you back with us.

MCCCAMMON: My pleasure. Good to talk to you all.

DAVIS: And we're talking about doing a listener question podcast later in the week about the political and economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. So if you have a question you'd like us to answer, send them to us. You can reach us on email at or ask us on our Facebook group. You can find it at

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KEITH: And I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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