By Leigh Creighton Bond • March 30, 2020•Writers in Residence
My life was surreal before COVID-19. I was transitioning from a position with a reproductive justice organization and back into the field of law as a criminal defense attorney. At the start of 2020, I was also a newly divorced, Black woman ready to conquer my goals by not only being the best attorney I can be but also remaining connected to reproductive justice (this is one of the reasons I'm grateful to be a Ms. JD Writer in Residence). Yet, here I am anticipating not only what lawyering will look like as I re-engage with the law but how COVID-19 will influence lawyering beyond 2020. I ask myself, “what new fires will reproductive justice advocates have to put out?” Ultimately, I’m just trying to make sense of it all, staying strong, but being vulnerable and figuring out how I can continue to contribute and help those in need.
Right now, the world is also trying to make sense of it all and digest concepts like “flatten the curve,” “wash your hands,” and unfortunately, the day to day panic that many underserved and marginalized populations were already surviving prior to COVID-19.
Turning specifically to the United States, the effects of COVID-19 have increased barriers to reproductive healthcare and amplified reproductive justice concerns. Marginalized populations were already experiencing disparities within the healthcare industrial complex, but with an increase in lost wages, furloughs preventing access and clarity around unemployment benefits, or worse, low-income populations will have even more difficulty in accessing basic health care. Additionally, the U.S Surgeon General’s recommendation restricting elective surgeries during the current pandemic has forced abortion care providers across several states to once again argue abortion is healthcare and an essential medical service. For example, attorneys from the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood and the Lawyering Project filed an emergency lawsuit on behalf of a group of abortion providers in Texas after Texas' attorney general interpreted abortion to be a procedure that is "not medically necessary." A federal district judge allowed abortions to proceed; however, the Fifth Circuit of Appeals decided to allow the abortion ban to stand for now. Moreover, patients who were already navigating barriers to abortion care, are facing increased barriers due to the effects of COVID-19, including unemployment, limited or canceled public services like public transportation, and no access to paid time off. If states don’t help abortion providers stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic, then anyone seeking abortion care, but especially those from low-income and marginalized populations, will suffer increased costs and/or health risks for a procedure that cannot be indefinitely delayed.
Similarly, marginalized folks currently in jails and prisons have always experienced barriers to accessing health care; therefore their risks of contracting COVID-19 are alarmingly high. Correctional facilities at all levels have already reported inmates and prisoners that have contracted COVID-19. Moreover, in case anyone reading this needs a reminder, there are pregnant women in jail and prison. Although the data resources remain incomplete, incarcerated pregnant women suffer gaps in their health care no matter if they are exercising their reproductive rights to have or not have children. Across the nation, attorneys, activists, and those confined are arguing for the release of inmates and prisoners, including a pregnant prisoner confined in Erie County Prison -- located in New York State and where many are referring to as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. In Georgia, where I am licensed and practice law, there’s a petition to release pregnant women and other vulnerable populations, especially from county jails -- at the petition’s helm is a reproductive justice advocate with her own story about the lack of care for pregnant women in prison.
As I grapple with my own story of how to handle a new level of surrealness, I must again emphasize that COVID-19 is exacerbating the barriers, dangers and gaps that marginalized communities were already facing. If you are seeking a call to action amongst the stories coming out of COVID-19, I hope you as a lawyer, law student, aspiring attorney, or supporter of the law -- find time to explore and support that reproductive justice, includes healthcare for all, and everyone deserves autonomy around their health.
**[This blog post was updated on April 4, 2020 to address the latest information about the abortion ban in Texas.]