Judges Slow Abortion Bans in Texas, Ohio During Pandemic

The rulings were signs of judges pushing back on Republican-controlled states including abortion in sweeping orders as the outbreak grows

FILE - In this June 22, 2017, file photo, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File

A federal judge Monday temporarily blocked Texas' efforts to ban abortions during the coronavirus pandemic, handing Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers a victory as clinics across the U.S. filed a wave of lawsuits to stop states from trying to shutter them during the outbreak.

A new Ohio order is also unconstitutional if it prevents abortions from being carried out, a separate judge ruled Monday. The ruling instructed clinics to determine on a case-by-case basis if an abortion can be delayed to maximize resources — such as preserving personal protective equipment — needed to fight the coronavirus. If the abortion is deemed necessary and can’t be delayed, it’s declared legally essential.

Taken together, the rulings were signs of judges pushing back on Republican-controlled states including abortion in sweeping orders as the outbreak grows in the U.S. In Texas, the ruling came down after state Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said abortion was included in a statewide ban on nonessential surgeries.

But U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said the "Supreme Court has spoken clearly" on a woman's right to abortion. One abortion provider in Texas, Whole Woman's Health, said it had canceled more than 150 appointments in the days after the Texas order went into effect.

"There can be no outright ban on such a procedure," Yeakel wrote. Paxton said the state would appeal.

The rulings happened Monday as lawsuits were also filed in Alabama, Iowa and Oklahoma, after governors in those states similarly ordered a stop to non-emergency procedures and specifically included abortion among them.

The lawsuits were filed by Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights and local lawyers in each state. Their aim, like abortion providers in Texas, is to stop state officials from prohibiting abortions as part of temporary policy changes related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Friday that abortions were included in his executive order banning all elective surgeries and minor medical procedures until April 7, unless the procedure was necessary to prevent serious health risks to the mother. Stitt said the order was needed to help preserve the state’s limited supply of personal protective equipment, like surgical masks and gloves.

A spokesman for Stitt referred questions about the challenge to Attorney General Mike Hunter, who vowed in a statement to defend the ban.

"My office will vigorously defend the governor’s executive order and the necessity to give precedence to essential medical procedures during this daunting public health crisis," Hunter's statement said. "Make no mistake, this lawsuit will itself drain significant resources, medical and legal, from emergency efforts, and likely, directly and indirectly, bring harm to Oklahomans as a result."

Alabama abortion clinics said without court action, they will be forced to cancel more than 20 abortions scheduled for Tuesday, including one patient who will be pushed past the legal limit for abortion in the state if she does not get the procedure this week.

"Preventing them from getting an abortion doesn’t do anything to stop the COVID-19 virus, it just takes the decision whether to have a child out of their hands," Randall Marshall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said in a statement.

Alabama closed many nonessential businesses with a state health order, effective Saturday.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said Monday the state would not offer a "blanket exemption" to abortion clinics.

When a reporter asked President Donald Trump what he would say to Americans who are upset with him "over the way you downplayed this crisis over the last couple of months," Trump responded by attacking the reporter and defending his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Put simply, no provider or clinic is excused from compliance with this order," Steve Marshall said. "In Texas and Ohio, as in Alabama, abortion providers are demanding special treatment and believe that they are above the law when it comes to the emergency orders."

In Ohio, Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics that sued last year to try to thwart a law that bans most abortions after a first detectable fetal heartbeat are asking a court to speed up its decision in that case and to consider a recent coronavirus order by the state health director. In filings Monday, the groups’ attorneys argued "the state is again attempting to ban abortions" through Dr. Amy Acton’s directive barring all "non-essential" procedures and Attorney General Dave Yost’s threats that it will be rigidly enforced.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said the governor "is focused on protecting Iowans from an unprecedented public health disaster, and she suspended all elective surgeries and procedures to preserve Iowa’s health care resources."

Reynolds said Sunday the move was not based on her personal ideology but a broad order to halt nonessential procedures to conserve medical equipment.

The Iowa lawsuit said abortion procedures do not require extensive use of medical equipment and do not use N95 respirators, the devices in shortest supply during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Patients’ abortions will be delayed, and in some cases, denied altogether," the lawsuit states. "As a result, Iowa patients will be forced to carry pregnancies to term, resulting in a deprivation of their fundamental right to determine when and whether to have a child or to add to their existing families."

The lawsuits seek court orders halting action pertaining to abortions and ask judges for immediate hearings.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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