Women's March SLO highlights pandemic-related reproductive health care access challenges virtually



Ever since the Women's March SLO first hosted a march in January 2017, it has regularly organized events that highlight issues of inequality and focus on achieving meaningful change. Although group gatherings in person are no longer on the agenda, people can still get together virtually.

"With COVID-19 and a stay-at-home order, like everyone else we had to adjust and find new ways to continue our mission," event organizer and organization spokesperson Andrea Chmelik said.

To stay connected with the community during the pandemic, Women's March SLO began hosting virtual forums via Zoom titled Answering the Call.

"While this has been an incredibly difficult time for a myriad of reasons, we need to make sure that we take this as an opportunity to address the issues of inequality that have become more exposed than ever," she said. "We have to stay engaged and continue speaking out, showing up, and leading the efforts in building a positive and just future for all."

COVID-19 has exposed the economic disparities and social inequalities wrapped up in a number of issues, Chmelik said. One issue is access to health care and, specifically for women, access to reproductive health care. Two of Women's March SLO's recent forums highlighted the challenges reproductive health care access is facing locally and nationally.

"In several states, abortion services were categorized as nonessential. Appointments were canceled and women left scrambling to find clinics outside of their home states. They had to find means to travel for their procedures, which was not only burdensome but also defied the stay-at-home orders," she said.

The Planned Parenthood San Luis Obispo Health Center is open and continues to provide a full range of its essential health services.

Julie Mickelberry, vice president of community engagement for Planned Parenthood Central Coast, told New Times the center is a critical part of the health care system, providing high-quality, affordable health care to hundreds of thousands of patients across California, including those without health insurance.

"We know that sexual and reproductive health care can't wait. That's why we're doing everything we can to ensure our patients get timely health care and information they need with respect and compassion," Mickelberry said. "In a time of such economic uncertainty for many, the ability to access affordable reproductive health care and to control if and when to have children is crucial for financial security, advancement, and—in a post-pandemic world—recovery."

RIGHT TO HEALTH CARE On May 21, 2019, local supporters joined a nationwide rally for reproductive rights in front of the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse. Reproductive health care is considered a nonessential service in some states and is facing potential funding cuts in California due to a pandemic-induced budget deficit. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • RIGHT TO HEALTH CARE On May 21, 2019, local supporters joined a nationwide rally for reproductive rights in front of the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse. Reproductive health care is considered a nonessential service in some states and is facing potential funding cuts in California due to a pandemic-induced budget deficit.

If a patient needs Planned Parenthood's services during this time, the health center is connecting patients with "trusted providers" through telehealth. Patients can schedule a visit with a Planned Parenthood medical provider over the phone to access emergency contraception, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), UTI consultation, and gender-affirming care without needing to physically visit the center. Patients can also get prescriptions called in to a pharmacy or pick up their supplies at the center.

But access to reproductive care in San Luis Obispo County is starkly different than access in other parts of the U.S.

On May 6, the Women's March SLO hosted a forum with Shannon Hovis, the director of NARAL Pro-Choice America—a national pro-choice organization.

At the forum, Hovis said there was a loss of Democratic representatives in 2010, which resulted in a lot of anti-abortion legislation.

"In the world we're living in now, anti-choice states are trying to bait the Kavanaugh court. It's why we saw an onslaught of abortion bans in 2019," she said.

When 2020 began, the U.S. had 14 pro-choice state governments, 23 anti-choice, and 13 states were mixed. As shelter-at-home orders proliferated across the country, anti-choice states used the coronavirus impacts as a means to prevent access to abortion services by categorizing the procedure as elective, according to an NPR report.

Hovis said many states have tried to "weaponize the virus" in order to ban abortion procedures, including the state of Texas.

In Texas, according to NPR, Republican state officials and organizations opposed to abortion rights argued that abortion services should be treated as nonessential during the pandemic in order to preserve medical supplies for coronavirus-infected patients. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suspended most abortions in the state during the public health crisis in March, and as a result, Planned Parenthood health centers in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada reported an influx of patients.

Patients seeking services at times defied shelter-at-home orders by traveling to out-of-state health centers.

"The effort, I want to be super clear, goes completely against all medical expert advice and science. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has made clear that abortion carries essential time-sensitive care that cannot be delayed," Hovis said.

California isn't moving to change women's access to reproductive care, but Mickelberry said it could face funding cuts.

On May 14, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a projected $54.3 billion deficit through the summer of 2021 and asked state lawmakers to cut spending on public schools and other government services—including health care.

"In a time of economic insecurity and rising unemployment, now more than ever, Californians need access to sexual and reproductive health care from trusted providers. Planned Parenthood is very concerned with the proposed shift of funding away from Proposition 56 supplemental rates, and we need the state to step up and protect access to lifesaving care that hundreds of thousands of patients rely on," Mickelberry said.

She said in recent years, allocations of Proposition 56 funds to sexual and reproductive health care have been the primary reason that many of Planned Parenthood's health centers in California have been able to remain open after years of compounding budgetary challenges and attacks by the federal government.

Continued Proposition 56 funding, Mickelberry said, is critical for Planned Parenthood's doors to remain open and to ensure "all Californians receive the compassionate care they deserve." Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at [email protected].


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