Abortion-rights groups seek to block Tennessee, Louisiana bans on surgical abortions during coronavirus crisis

Abortion-rights groups seek to block Tennessee, Louisiana bans on surgical abortions during coronavirus crisis
© Greg Nash

Abortion-rights groups on Tuesday asked federal courts to block statewide bans on surgical abortions in Louisiana and Tennessee during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The lawsuits, brought by Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of abortion clinics in Tennessee and Louisiana, challenge abortion bans that state officials implemented to preserve medical resources for the coronavirus response.

“All signs indicate that this crisis will not be over soon, and patients cannot wait until it is. Leading medical experts have been clear that COVID-19 responses should not ban abortion care," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

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An executive order signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) last month prohibits nonessential medical procedures during the pandemic in order to preserve supplies and resources for the state's coronavirus response. The order did not specifically mention abortion, but a spokesperson for Lee later said the governor views abortion as nonessential.

The executive order is scheduled to lift after April 30, but abortion-rights supporters argue some women cannot wait that long because they would be past the legal limit for abortion in the state. The legal complaint notes that the order could be extended because it is not clear yet when the pandemic will end.

According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, abortion providers in the state have had to cancel appointments and turn away patients seeking abortions.

Delaying abortions until later in pregnancy would also expose women to increased medical risks and a more complex procedure, the complaint states. 

A nationwide shortage of medical gloves and masks has led several states to temporarily ban nonessential procedures, like knee and hip replacements. But Republican governors in several states have interpreted abortion to be a nonessential procedure, prompting lawsuits from Planned Parenthood and other groups. 

In Tennessee, abortion providers have had to cancel appointments and turn away patients seeking abortions or face criminal penalties, according to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.

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The Center for Reproductive Rights also filed a lawsuit in Louisiana on Tuesday, where abortions have been put on hold because of a similar ban.

Last month, the Louisiana Department of Health ordered all medical and surgical procedures be postponed until further notice, with exceptions for emergencies. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry later stated that "elective abortions are not essential procedures," and sent investigators from his office to question staff at abortion clinics. 

Abortion rights groups argue that state officials are using the pandemic as a front to ban the procedure, noting childbirth requires more medical supplies, resources and hospital space than abortions. The vast majority of abortions are performed on an outpatient basis at clinics. 

The order is unconstitutional, they argue, because it essentially bans abortion before a baby can survive outside of the womb, violating the precedent set by the Supreme Court in the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling issued in 1973.

Abortion rights groups have filed lawsuits in five other states, with temporary restraining orders granted in Alabama, Ohio and Oklahoma.

A ban on medication and surgical abortions in Texas — part of the governor's emergency order postponing elective procedures — has been the subject of fast-moving litigation in recent weeks. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed its ruling in Texas Monday, allowing medication abortion to continue in the state.

However, most surgical abortions are still banned in the state under Texas's emergency order on elective surgeries. Advocates also filed a lawsuit against a similar emergency ban in Arkansas this week.

-- Updated at 5:10 p.m.