The COVID-19 epidemic has pulled parts of America’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse. Hospitals in hard-hit areas are reaching capacity as emergency rooms fill with patients, available ICU beds dwindle, and much-needed medical equipment becomes harder to find. In New York City, some coronavirus patients are now treated on a decades-old hospital ship meant to assist troops in times of war. Yet in some states, even those which are severely impacted by the coronavirus, the hallways of certain clinics remain empty. No physicians work; no patients receive treatment.
Across the U.S., abortion clinics have shuddered after states have deemed abortion procedures to be medically “unessential.” In the evening of March 23, 2020, Texas’s attorney general announced in a sweeping declaration that abortions in the state were to be halted indefinitely. Lawyers determined that this included medication abortions, or those induced through simple administration of a pill. Governors and attorneys general took similar actions in Ohio, Texas, Iowa, Alabama, and Oklahoma.
The majority of clinics affected are small and independently-run. They operate on slim margins with a small staff and limited funding. Even just a few months out of business can pose an existential crisis to such providers. Moreover, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a public statement in which it stressed that abortion services are urgent and time-sensitive; even just days of delay can pose serious risks to the patient and may make the procedure impossible. For these reasons, the bans were met with court challenges by reproductive rights activists. The challenges were successful in several states—temporary injunctions allowed service to continue.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that Texas’s ban was constitutional, effectively allowing the state to prohibit all abortions for as long as it sees fit. If small clinics cannot provide service for several months, they may shut down. Abortion access in Texas will move from poor to practically nonexistent.
What does this tell us about American democracy? The issue of abortion access shines a spotlight on serious cracks in the American court system. Five of the judges on the 5th Circuit are Trump appointees, and its one vacancy is close to being filled by another Trump judge. In the last three years, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump have pushed an unprecedented number of federal judges through the approval process, many of whom side with conservatives on hot-button issues like abortion.
This process is difficult to stop because Trump and McConnell use legal mechanisms to push their judges through. The courts may be packed with partisan judges, but there is nothing unconstitutional about the process through which they were confirmed. Varol defines this type of behavior as “steal authoritarianism”; the end goal is undemocratic, yet each step of the process occurs within the framework of the democratic system. 
The attorneys general and governors of states which enacted COVID-19 abortion bans use the same strategy. The right to an abortion is guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, and despite recent limits placed Roe, the fundamental principle—that women have the right to a safe abortion and the right to reasonable access—remains. But officials enacted abortion bans through a constitutional process.
State governments have access to certain powers during times of emergency. However, when that power is abused, courts have the obligation to step in and halt the misuse; the 5th Circuit’s ruling shows us that the courts may no longer fulfill that obligation. Stealth authoritarianism threatens abortion access from two sides: Both the executive and the judiciary may be compromised.
The issue of stealth authoritarianism also highlights another problem facing American democracy—a lack of forbearance. The federal government, judiciary, and state governments have the ability to exercise a dazzling array of powers, especially during a crisis like COVID-19. The mechanism which restrains American officials from exercising the fullest extent of their power is not necessarily constitutional. As Levitsky and Ziblatt have pointed out, it is just a norm that politicians should not take full advantage of their constitutional authority.  Texas’s decision shows us just how fragile this norm can be. In an evening, the attorney general wiped out abortion access across the entire state, despite decades of precedence in both the courts and the political sphere.
This has a dual effect. On one hand, the machinery of the government is less responsive. It is less responsive to its citizens—such as women in need of treatment, healthcare advocacy groups, and the like. It is also less responsive to court challenges. Lower courts may hand down politically charged decisions that must be appealed upwards, a process which can take months. This may make citizens feel like they have less of an ability to influence their government, a key loss for healthy democracy.  On the other hand, the machinery of the government is more responsive to the authoritarian leaders which lead it. The check on decision-making is slowed by stealth authoritarianism, not the decision-making itself. In Texas, abortion clinics will remain closed as this process continues.
The COVID-19 outbreak could define the future of abortion access in the United States; it could also tell us the direction in which our democracy heads. Reproductive care is just one facet of the American political system, but the challenges it faces highlight institutional forces which silently erode our democracy. Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4).  Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.  Schumpeter, Joseph. (1943). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.