Days after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered a ban on nearly all abortions in the state during the coronavirus pandemic, Planned Parenthood filed a emergency lawsuit in federal court attempting to overturn the order.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday night on behalf of eight reproductive health clinics in Texas, claims that Paxton’s order is unconstitutional and in violation of Roe v. Wade, and demands an immediate temporary restraining order to keep the doors of Texas’s abortion clinics open.
“It’s unconscionable that the Texas Attorney General is exploiting this pandemic to end abortion in the state,” Nancy Northup, head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal nonprofit joining the lawsuit, said in a call with press Wednesday evening. “Abortion care is time-sensitive and essential health care that has a profound impact on a person’s health and life, which is why it is protected as a constitutional right.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Sunday, demanding that any “medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures” be canceled during the coronavirus outbreak through April 21 in order to ensure that all the medical resources possible could be devoted to mitigating and treating patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Following Abbott’s order, his Attorney General’s Office issued a press release explicitly saying that the order applied to “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life of the mother,” and that anyone found in violation of the order would “be met with the full force of the law,” including a $1,000 fine or up to 180 days in jail.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased demands for hospital beds and has created a shortage of personal protective equipment [PPE] needed to protect health care professionals and stop transmission of the virus,” Paxton’s statement read. “Postponing surgeries and procedures that are not immediately medically necessary will ensure that hospital beds are available for those suffering from COVID-19 and that PPEs are available for health care professionals.”
Texas is currently the only state to explicitly attempt to ban the procedure during the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Ohio’s deputy attorney general, Jonathan Fulkerson, sent letters to several abortion clinics in the state accusing them of being in violation of the order, but the clinics’ lawyers quickly responded assuring Fulkerson’s office that they were in compliance with the order and were taking all necessary precautions. Abortion clinics in Ohio remain open, appointments have not been canceled, and so far the clinics are not being penalized.
In the lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas, the reproductive rights organizations pointed out that Paxton’s phrasing implies that even medication abortion (taking an abortion pill by mouth, which can be done at home by telemedicine), which is not surgery or a procedure, is banned under his order.
“This appears to be the only oral medication targeted in this manner,” the lawsuit reads, extrapolating that Paxton’s interpretation of Abbott’s order was made with the explicit aim of limiting abortion access, even in cases where it would have no effect on medical resources available for treating COVID-19 cases.
If the interpretation were to go into effect, “patients will not be able to obtain an abortion for weeks or even months, given that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to last far beyond the order’s stated expiration date,” the lawsuit states. “Some will not be able to access abortion at all and will be forced to carry pregnancies to term.”
If many women in Texas were made to give birth against their will, the lawsuit argues, the order would not only infringe on their personal freedoms, but it would be economically damaging to the state, imposing “far greater strains on an already-taxed healthcare system, as prenatal care and delivery involve much greater exhaustion of hospital health care services and PPE than abortions.”
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