Just a day after a judge ordered Texas to stop using the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to restrict abortion access, a U.S. appeals court has temporarily halted that order — allowing the state to once again limit abortions.
Over the last few weeks, as public officials across the U.S. moved to shutter businesses and “nonessential” services in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, officials in a handful of conservative-leaning states have called for abortion clinics to stop offering the procedure. After Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, declared that all non-emergency medical procedures should be postponed, Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered Texas abortion providers to only offer the procedure if it were “medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”
The order devastated abortion access in the Lone Star State: Texas clinics contacted last week by VICE News said that they were no longer performing abortions.
Planned Parenthood and other providers sued Texas over Paxton’s order last week. On Monday, a judge sided with the providers, issuing a temporary restraining order that would have let clinics continue to offer abortions for the time being.
“Regarding a woman’s right to a pre-fetal-viability abortion, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly. There can be no outright ban on such a procedure,” U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, of Texas, wrote in a Monday order. “This court will not speculate on whether the Supreme Court included a silent ‘except-in-a-national-emergency’ clause in its previous writings on the issue.”
But Texas appealed that decision, and on Tuesday, a three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked Yeakel’s restraining order. In its order, the court said it wanted more time to consider Texas’ appeal.
In a statement, Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, promised to keep fighting the Texas ban. Because the lawsuit has already risen through the courts so quickly, it may soon face the conservative-dominated Supreme Court.
Texas isn’t the only state currently embroiled in a legal battle over abortion access in the coronavirus pandemic. In a flurry of legal filings Monday, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and other abortion rights advocates also launched similar lawsuits in Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Thanks to state orders to curtail abortion, the procedure was left temporarily unavailable statewide in Alabama, VICE News found, as well as in Oklahoma, according to a legal filing.
On Monday, judges granted temporary restraining orders in Ohio and Alabama that will let abortion providers continue to work.
In a call with reporters before the courts’ orders, Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, pointed out that many of the states now seeking to curb abortion access amid the pandemic are the same states that have a track record of passing abortion restrictions. Alabama, for example, passed a law last year to ban almost all abortions. (A legal challenge has blocked that law from taking effect.) In 2013, Texas abortion restrictions led about half of the state’s abortion clinics to close. Few have reopened.
“We all know that pregnancies don’t stop just because of the healthcare crisis,” Dalven said. She added, “Stopping them from getting an abortion doesn’t lower the risk of transmitting the virus; it just forces people to stay pregnant.”
“Stopping them from getting an abortion doesn’t lower the risk of transmitting the virus; it just forces people to stay pregnant.”
The coronavirus pandemic already threatens to destroy abortion access across the United States. Republicans have probably cut Planned Parenthood out of a massive coronavirus bailout package. Clinics that fly in doctors to perform abortions are struggling to bring them in. Independent providers, which perform the majority of American abortions but are now forced to cancel services, are grappling with the possibility of financial ruin.
“Probably every independent clinic in the country is at risk,” Nikki Madsen, executive director of the Abortion Care Network, a membership group for independent abortion providers, told VICE News last week. “This is the thing that scares me the most, of anything that I’ve seen in the last 18 years, of potentially really decimating abortion access in this country.”
Cover: Director of Clinical Services, Marva Sadler, prepares the operating room at the Whole Woman's Health clinic in Fort Worth, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)