Protesters at the Supreme Court in March 2020, when the justices were hearing arguments in June Medical Services LLC v. Russo. (Robin Bravender/ States Newsroom)

By Jamie Lockhart

It’s been horrific to watch politicians across this country use the COVID-19 global pandemic as a vehicle to ban abortion and restrict access to reproductive health care. When the pandemic first hit, seven states included abortion bans in their COVID-19 emergency orders  –– making abortion inaccessible for thousands during a pandemic. And as some state legislatures return to work now, the first item on the docket for politicians in Iowa, Mississippi and Tennessee has been to try and ban abortion.

But it’s not all bad news for reproductive health care and rights. On Monday, the Supreme Court sent a resounding message to politicians all across the country: Stop trying to make abortion inaccessible. And in Virginia, today, our state will roll back decades of roadblocks that anti-abortion politicians put in place.

These huge victories for reproductive health care could not come at a more important time, as the impact of abortion restrictions were even more dangerous for Virginians during the global pandemic.

Before July 1 in Virginia, those who made the decision to end their pregnancy were forced, by law, to a 24-hour mandatory waiting period. This may not sound so restrictive on its face –– but imagine if you live over an hour away from the closest abortion provider. This politician-imposed waiting period would force you to either make two, hour-plus long round trips on back to back days, or book a hotel room. Both require money, time off of work, and a lot of travel during a global pandemic.

No medical professional would prescribe that.

And, to be clear, these restrictions disproportionately impact people of color and people earning low incomes. Racism is a public health crisis, and it can be as overt as police brutality or as subtle as state-sanctioned, anti-abortion restrictions that disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities.

And it doesn’t end there. Before July 1, patients seeking abortion care were forced, by law, to have a mandatory, medically unnecessary ultrasound and undergo biased “counseling,” for the sole purpose of shaming them. This was not prescribed by any health care provider — but rather by anti-abortion laws in our commonwealth.

But starting July 1, thanks to so many advocates in the reproductive health and rights movement and champions in the state legislature, that’s all going to change. Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly was finally able to roll back decades of roadblocks their predecessors put up for individuals seeking abortion care. By doing what is right, they have returned decisions about pregnancy from legislators back to clinicians and their patients.

The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Patients will no longer be forced to listen to the state-mandated, biased script that is intended to shame patients and discourage them from seeking abortion. They only need to come in to see an abortion provider one time, cutting in half the need for time off of work, child care, gas money and all of the other obstacles that prevent folks from obtaining an abortion during a pandemic. They can seek abortion care from a qualified nurse practitioner and certified nurse midwives — who go through rigorous post-graduate training and have extensive clinical experience — greatly expanding abortion access in the state. And they are able to seek abortion services from more health centers in rural areas of the commonwealth after changes to medically unnecessary regulations that limited access to abortion.

The anti-abortion movement will twist these victories into suggestions that those seeking care are less safe and being kept from valuable information. The facts are, abortion is health care and it is incredibly safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that abortion has over a 99 percent safety record. Just like any health care procedure you would receive from your primary care provider, decisions will be made by you in consultation with your clinician. Removing these onerous restrictions simply affirms that abortion is essential, time-sensitive health care that should be delivered without restrictions or delay.

No matter where we land on our support for abortion rights in the spectrum of justice, we must all agree that it is critical for people seeking abortion care to have medically accurate information about their health and the health of their families.

Virginia is poised for the largest expansion of reproductive health care access in Virginia in decades. But there is more work to be done to ensure everyone has access to abortion care. Virginia can lead the way.

Jamie Lockhart is executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.