Judges block Texas, Ohio, Alabama from banning abortion as part of coronavirus response

Judges block Texas, Ohio, Alabama from banning abortion as part of coronavirus response
© Greg Nash

Three federal judges on Monday temporarily blocked Texas, Ohio and Alabama from enforcing bans on abortions as part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel wrote in an opinion Monday afternoon that the ban in Texas, which state officials say is intended to conserve medical supplies, is likely unconstitutional.

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,” he wrote in his order authorizing a temporary restraining order. 

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued a directive earlier this month suspending nonessential medical procedures in an effort to conserve masks and gloves for health workers on the front lines of the pandemic. 

Several states have issued similar orders, but a divide has emerged between red and blue states about whether abortion is an essential procedure.

Abbott’s order didn’t specifically lay out which procedures are nonessential. But state Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) later said that abortion is a nonessential procedure that should be halted during the outbreak, leading clinics in the state to cancel appointments or face criminal penalties and fines.

Paxton’s interpretation of Abbott’s directive “amounts to a pre-viability ban, which contravenes Supreme Court precedent,” including Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that established a woman’s right to an abortion, Yeakel wrote. 

"The benefits of a limited potential reduction in the use of some personal protective equipment by abortion providers is outweighed by the harm of eliminating abortion access in the midst of a pandemic that increases the risks of continuing an unwanted pregnancy, as well as the risks of traveling to other states in search of time-sensitive medical care," he wrote.

Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights, representing abortion providers in Texas, sued over the order last week. Yeakel's order expires April 13, when he is scheduled to hold a hearing on the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction. 

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“Abortion is essential healthcare, and it’s a time-sensitive service, especially during a public health crisis,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health.

“Many people are already financially insecure and futures are uncertain. We applaud today’s ruling, which will allow us to do what we do best, provide safe and compassionate abortion care to those who need it,” she added.

Hours after Yeakel's opinion was issued, U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett issued a temporary restraining order in Ohio, writing that enforcement would create "a substantial obstacle in the path of patients seeking pre-viability abortions, thus creating an undue burden on abortion access."

A third judge ruled against Alabama Monday evening. 

Abortion rights groups including Planned Parenthood also filed lawsuits Monday against officials in Iowa, Oklahoma, Alabama and Ohio to ensure abortion is accessible during the pandemic. 

Officials in those states either have said that orders suspending nonessential medical procedures apply to abortions or have issued directives that left providers unclear about whether they are running afoul of the law.

Updated at 7:19 pm