In several GOP-led states, politicians are trying to ban abortion as a “nonessential” procedure. “We’re clear,” she says, “that women need access right now.”

Alexis McGill Johnson speaks at a rally in Lafayette Square, 2019.BY MARLENA SLOSS/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES.

In any serious crisis, civil rights are also in grave danger. And with COVID-19 sweeping the country, some politicians have seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to restrict access to abortion. A handful of Republican-led states—including Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Mississippi—have sought to effectively ban abortion, claiming that it is a “nonessential” procedure. Against this backdrop, Planned Parenthood and its partners are scrambling to protect access and have filed lawsuits against the bans, managing to secure restraining orders in some states to block them. But in Texas, abortion is currently banned after Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order to halt abortion in the state and conservative judges on Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently upheld the policy, which is scheduled to stay in effect through at least April 21.

Vanity Fair’s Hive spoke with Alexis McGill Johnson, the acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, about how antiabortion politicians are seeking to exploit the coronavirus crisis with a spate of abortion bans, under the guise of public health amid the pandemic.

Vanity Fair: Walk me through what we’ve seen in these states like Alabama, Ohio, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Texas amid the coronavirus pandemic that is of such great concern to Planned Parenthood at the moment.

Alexis McGill Johnson: First, I think it’s important to state that abortion is an essential, time-sensitive medical procedure, and we know that reproductive rights are essential. And right now what we have in various states across the country are antiabortion politicians who are using this pandemic to play politics with our health. They’re doing that through delaying, creating barriers to care, trying to make it more difficult for patients to access safe and legal abortion. They’re taking actions like executive orders. We’ve seen bans in states—Texas, Ohio, Iowa, Oklahoma, Alabama—where they are essentially trying to say that because of the pandemic that all nonessential health care should be stopped and banned. And we firmly believe that abortion is an essential, time-sensitive medical procedure. We’re clear that women need access right now.

Just to clarify the position of politicians in these states, they are trying to argue that abortion is not an essential procedure, thus effectively banning it, and Planned Parenthood is taking the opposite position?

Look, this isn’t just Planned Parenthood saying that abortion is essential. This is also the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and [other] medical associations as well that understand that if we just ground ourselves in understanding how pregnancy works and how abortion works that just delaying by a few weeks actually makes abortion inaccessible. So it’s really critically important to help support women who are in need now. And that’s where we are and obviously many of our partners as well.

What I would love to add to that though is the idea that they’re using the pandemic and the banning of nonessential services broadly under the guise of protecting people—the more people who are able to shelter in place allows people to not be exposed. They’re using a framework around abortion not being essential as a way of kind of further mandating people staying in place. And we’ve had patients call our California clinics from the state of Texas because they are so worried about getting a procedure, which means, they are getting on planes, they are getting on buses, they are driving themselves hundreds of miles across the country to access a time-sensitive medical procedure. It means that they may further need childcare. Women make up the majority of health care workers, so we may actually taking health care providers out of the responsibility that they’re doing.

This idea that this is about kind of protecting communities from the pandemic really falls flat on its face when you actually see how people are responding to it because it is time-sensitive.

What is the status of the ban in Texas, which is something of an outlier?

In Texas, the ban was appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. And the Fifth Circuit—rather than abide by a temporary restraining order, which would be a couple of weeks to consider the case—it used an extraordinary measure to allow Governor Greg Abbott to essentially drastically restrict abortion using his executive order.

I think what’s really important here to understand is that there is no other form of health care that’s being targeted in this way, only abortion. When we see these bans, these specific attacks on abortion providers, it’s really important to look at it in a context of how other health care providers are being treated. And you can see that we’re being singled out.

Are you expecting governors in other states to issue executive orders, as Governor Abbott did in Texas, or other states to take similarly extraordinary measures to limit access to abortion?

It’s really clear that politicians are exploiting the fear and urgency of this moment to push their political agenda to ban abortion and that we will continue to see those with that ideological agenda be pushed to continue to do more.

I would remind folks that these are the same politicians that have been eroding public-health infrastructure for decades. It’s one of the reasons why we’re struggling in this pandemic right now, with a shortage of providers, a shortage of health insurance. These are the same folks who refuse to expand Medicaid. These are the same folks who supported forcing organizations like Planned Parenthood out of Title X. You have to connect the dots here. This is a moment where the pandemic is being used as cover to really push a horrible political agenda around abortion.

Looking at Texas specifically, what are the next steps for Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union in that fight and the extraordinary measure by Governor Abbott?

It is an extraordinary measure. We can’t speculate on what will be the immediate next step there. I will say we are monitoring a number of other states and we’re continuing to do everything we can in our power to fight for our patients. We’re continuing to support folks who need to leave the state, who need access, as I mentioned before. That’s the work. We’re responding to the crisis appropriately by being there for our patients.

What does it look like on the ground for these women seeking procedures in a state like Texas, where access is cut off during the coronavirus pandemic?

I think that’s really important, right? We’re all just trying to survive this crisis. It’s a very scary time. And women are, in particular, bearing the brunt of the work already in this crisis, as we normally do. We are homeschooling children. We are working low-wage jobs that have been deemed essential. Women are making up the majority of health care workers. Black and Latinx women, in particular, are facing incredibly harsh economic circumstances. And the fear that they won’t be able to access basic reproductive health care is forcing them into extraordinary measures to seek access to abortion—driving across state lines, putting their lives in jeopardy, and having to navigate this in a way that does not actually bring more safety in a pandemic, but actually really exposes them.

I also think it’s important to think about what we know from studying pandemics past, that this is also a time where domestic violence increases. This is a time where we need to actually extend more access to sexual reproductive health care—family planning, STI screenings, abortion access—not less. I can’t imagine sheltering in place with someone who might be abusive and still need access to a time-sensitive medical procedure and not be able to receive it.

Do you think the bans that we are seeing in these states are part of broader, long-term strategy? For instance, another attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade?

I think that they see this crisis as an opportunity to push their agenda. I think that this is absolutely connected to the hundreds of restrictions that we’ve seen introduced in state legislatures across the country over the last 10 years that have been designed to shame women, to target abortion providers, to criminalize pregnancy, to criminalize miscarriage. This is definitely part of a long game of shaming access to reproductive health care, both from the case of before the Supreme Court now to the bans and again as I mentioned Title X. They have been waging a very, very coordinated attack and they seized on this crisis that the world is going through to use it as an opportunity in the name of public health.

Are we seeing other attacks on women’s reproductive health, aside from these bans, amid the COVID-19 crisis?

The expansion of the Hyde Amendment to a new pot of funds [in the Congressional relief package] was really clearly an attempt to target Planned Parenthood health centers. And what we will continue to see are these cruel measures that continue to do a disservice to the people who are already struggling to access care. I think that we will see, particularly in the Senate, whenever they lead on these things, to attach Hyde to everything, to continue to expand their hold on that.

I also think we’ll see people respond to it. Certainly they will be using these rules to try to push an agenda. But I do believe that folks who are, you know, who are hearing what’s happening will be out there fighting and making sure that their electeds are hearing from them that in the middle of a health crisis this is the time to actually be expanding access to care, not making it more difficult.

What can people, activists, communities do in the middle of the pandemic to push back on some of these measures?

They can educate themselves on what’s happening. They can educate their networks. They can call their electeds and talk about the impact that they see and their concerns about what’s happening. We can’t stand by and let our elected officials put the health of our patients and communities at risk. We have to ensure that every person has the health care that gives them control over their lives. Planned Parenthood is building a watchdog team, which is really helping to try to track all the attacks and to push back. So we have some information where you can text “enough” to 22422 to get involved and to learn more. And then also to help us manage the litany of attacks that’ll be made toward us.

Is there anything you think people might be missing or I might have missed on this topic?

I just think that it’s really important in a moment where we are so isolated from each other because of our necessary social distancing that we really take a moment to understand the experiences that so many people are going through. We know that no one stops needing sexual and reproductive health care in a public health care crisis. People are still having sex. People still need birth control. They still need STI testing. They still need safe and legal abortion. We are living in a tale of different states, a tale of two states. Where if you are living in one state, your governor may have created an executive order just to limit your ability to access abortion, and there are other states where you can still drive down the street and experience your time-sensitive care. That’s just an unfairness that I think this pandemic is really exposing. It’s really shedding new light on the insanity of so many of these bans that have been used to target abortion access.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.