As communities reel from the devastating impacts of COVID-19, conservative politicians and lawmakers in an alarming number of states have capitalized on the fear and scarcity surrounding the pandemic. They are using legitimate health concerns as a smokescreen to enact anti-choice abortion bans. They have done so under the pretense of public safety, but their actions jeopardize the health and well-being of their communities.
Abortion clinics in Texas have been locked in a legal battle with the state government in recent weeks, leaving vulnerable patients in limbo, after Gov. Greg Abbott deemed abortion a “non-essential” medical procedure. This was purportedly a decision made in the interest of public health, and yet Abbott has also asserted that religious services conducted in “churches, congregations, and houses of worship” are “essential” and therefore should not be subject to stay-at-home orders. He has also openly talked about his plans to re-open the economy as soon as possible, via executive order. This calls his actual commitment to the preservation of life into question.
Likewise, Kentucky’s state legislature just moved to grant Attorney General Daniel Cameron the authority to enforce abortion bans and shut down clinics. He has justified this ban as an effort to “conserve medical supplies” — never mind the fact that medical abortions require little to no personal protective equipment (PPE). Additionally, continuing a pregnancy and giving birth would require significantly more PPE and doctor’s visits than a one-time abortion. While Cameron also claimed that the bans are meant to “follow social distancing protocols,” he then went on to override local officials who tried to ban drive-in church services for Easter weekend. These officials felt that the sheer number of people gathered would pose too big of a health risk, but Cameron disagreed. A similar dynamic is happening in Mississippi, where Gov. Tate Reeves has vowed to shut down the state’s one remaining abortion clinic under the guise of public health, yet instructed Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons to lift his ban on drive-in church services.
Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, made headlines when Rev. Tony Spell openly defied state orders by continuing to hold church services, boasting about attendances of upwards of 1,000 parishioners. He justified these gatherings by pointing out that Planned Parenthood was staying open, and said that if Planned Parenthood were to shut down, “we’d save more lives than would be taken by the coronavirus.” Recently, an elderly member of the church died from COVID-19, yet Reverend Spell continues to show little remorse or responsibility, claiming that the cause of death is a fabrication. Life Tabernacle Church’s lawyer, Jeff Wittenbrink, has also been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is currently hospitalized.
Even worse, there are clergy who are opposing stay-at-home orders while also engaging in clinic protests. Kentucky’s Shelbyville Church of God, led by Pastor Joshua Nunley, continues to attend in-person protests at a Louisville abortion clinic. The protesters have come within inches of clinic staff and patients, invading their personal space, compromising their safety, and engaging in intimidation tactics such as yelling. Some clinic escorts have actually stopped volunteering due to fears of contracting COVID-19 from the protesters.
Another congregation in Merrillville, Indiana, has gone so far as to travel out of state to protest abortion clinics in Kentucky. While they affirm the right to make decisions based on their own religious beliefs and sensibilities, once again, they do not extend that same respect for others.
The Fairway Christian Church in Ocala, Florida, plays a leading role in a crisis pregnancy center (CPC), Alpha Center for Women. CPCs like this one function as ploys to manipulate vulnerable pregnant people into giving birth no matter what, often through lies, misinformation, fraud and scare tactics. The Alpha Center claims to “offer life affirming choices to those experiencing unplanned pregnancies” and “educate, equip, support, restore, and empower moms and dads to choose life.” Meanwhile, the church continues to conduct their worship services in person, with worship leaders themselves sitting, standing, singing and preaching in such close proximity to one another that it belies their “pro-life” stance.
While abortion clinics are being kneecapped left and right in places like Texas, Ohio and Alabama, crisis pregnancy centers have been allowed to remain open in those very same states. For example, in Texas, the Houston Pregnancy Help Center has announced an intention to stay open throughout the course of the pandemic.
Thomas Glessner, president of National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, an organization that heads up CPCs across the country, was quoted in VICE News stating that, “the health resources provided by these dedicated life-affirming ministries are absolutely essential” and that “abortion is deadlier than the coronavirus.”
Crisis pregnancy centers do not provide actual health care and they do not offer clients the full range of reproductive health care options. Oftentimes, staff members will pose as medical professionals and give false medical advice. Even though other public establishments (like movie theaters, restaurants, book shops, etc.) have had to close, CPCs have effectively granted themselves the status of providing “essential” medical services, and some state governments are allowing them to remain in operation.
The actions of anti-choice politicians and religious communities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have elucidated the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement that, from its inception, has been more interested in preserving political power than promoting human flourishing. This has always been true, but it has never been more apparent.