LITTLE ROCK FAMILY PLANNING SERVICES: Protesters eventually for a time this year achieved closure of the abortion clinic under the pretext of the coronavirus crisis.
Important story about how anti-abortion activist Marsha Boss, a member of the Arkansas Board of Health; the attorney general; the governor, and a state agency nominally devoted to health used the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic to temporarily stop medical abortions in Arkansas.
From March to May, governors in 12 states determined that abortion was not an essential health care procedure, triggering widespread confusion and some temporary clinic closures. To better understand how states came to decide whether abortion was an essential procedure, HuffPost narrowed in on one state, Arkansas, and reviewed hundreds of pages of internal communications from the state health department in April and May.
What emerged was a story of how a health department, under pressure by anti-abortion legislators and activists ― including a board of health member ― was weaponized in the war against abortion and used to justify the cessation of surgical abortions in the state.
The documents we reviewed were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by attorneys for the Little Rock clinic. (HuffPost tried to request documents directly from the department of health but was denied because of out-of-state residence.) We spoke to six people associated with the Little Rock clinic, as well as experts in public health and abortion. Boss declined our request for an interview. So did the department of health, citing ongoing “litigation around this issue.” A spokesperson for Hutchinson noted that the directive used to halt surgical abortions had been litigated and upheld. “Surgical abortions were not entitled to a special exemption from the State’s directive,” a spokesperson for the attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, said in an email.
The consequences of the surgical abortion ban were incalculable. Scores of women had their abortion appointments canceled and had to travel out of state during the pandemic. And in a few known cases, women who wanted abortions were unable to get one before the legal cutoff and remain pregnant against their will today.
The article notes that complaints about out-of-state patients flooding into Little Rock Family Planning Services, the one remaining provider of medical abortions in Arkansas, and violations of social distancing guidelines didn’t prove true. (Planned Parenthood also provides pharmaceutical abortion at one Little Rock clinic.)
An inspection found Little Rock Family Planning in compliance. But Attorney General Leslie Rutledge apparently rewrote the findings that the clinic was in compliance into a cease-and-desist order. Then the anti-abortion drive hit the fan, with Republican senators cheering it on.
In the beginning of April, Williams had two phone calls with ADH in which she explained the measures the clinic was taking. She was not told that abortion was considered nonessential, she said. Nor did anyone tell her that when ADH made an unannounced visit on April 7. So when a health official showed up three days later on Good Friday with a cease-and-desist order, she was surprised.
That day, the clinic was scheduled to provide surgical abortions for eight patients, including one who was 17 weeks pregnant. (Currently, women in Arkansas can get an abortion up to the 20th week; an 18-week ban signed into law by Hutchinson in 2019 is temporarily blocked by a federal judge.)
It was the second visit to the clinic for all of the women, as they were required to come in 72 hours earlier for mandated counseling. Many of them had driven long distances ― twice. Now they were being told they could not get an abortion after all.
Williams’s first concern was helping them find an appointment elsewhere. But many of the surrounding states were struggling with similar abortion bans. “Louisiana and Texas and Tennessee all were unable to provide surgical care at some point during this,” she said. “It was difficult to navigate who was still open to seeing patients and where would be the closest place for them to drive. Air travel wasn’t an option at all.”
As clinic staff counseled frantic women, anti-abortion protesters and state representatives were celebrating outside. Boss arrived at the clinic before ADH staff delivered the letter, according to Hooper, the clinic’s security guard. Standing by the driveway, Republican state Sen. Jason Rapert livestreamed on Facebook. “Right through that door, they enter there and they’re making a decision that will change their lives and will end the lives of little human beings,” he said. “We need to take a stand for human life.” He was not wearing a mask.
Then lawsuits began. A win for Little Rock Family Planning in district court and a reversal at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A new coronavirus testing requirement opened a window for the clinic to operate, but it was nearly impossible to meet. It went back to court. Another extension of a testing rule, giving 72 hours to obtain a test before visiting a clinic, has allowed business to resume at the clinic. For now.
Those who support women’s medical rights know the battle isn’t over.
Abortions have been reduced in Little Rock. Some women were denied abortions and will continue pregnancies they didn’t want. The state’s law already was among the most punishing in the country.
Even the patients who were able to obtain an abortion under the governor’s rules were severely affected by the stress of the experience, she said.
One woman had to drive to Little Rock seven times before she was able to obtain an abortion. “She had a COVID test, and it didn’t come back in time. So then she had to retest, and wait to see if it came back before her appointment, and we just went through this terrible cycle over and over,” Williams said.
The Department of Health, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and an anti-abortion activist who oversees the Health Department all played a role in a tragedy for women.
In a statement sent to HuffPost, Hutchinson defended Boss, writing that she was “entitled to express her beliefs” and noting the importance of diverse perspectives on the board of health.
To Williams, it seems like women were denied their constitutional right to obtain an abortion over a callous political stunt.
It didn’t have to be this way, she added.
“In the overwhelming majority of states, there was no interruption of abortion care. They allowed physicians and medical professionals to make judgments on what care is appropriate and how to do it,” she said. “In Arkansas, the ability to seek an abortion has been just truly violated.”