Appeals court OKs Texas abortion ban during coronavirus outbreak

Ruling comes as several states seek to ban the procedure in an effort rights groups say is ‘exploiting a health crisis’.

March for Life
Pro- and anti-abortion rights activists demonstrate in front of the the US Supreme Court during the 47th annual March for Life [File: Oliver Douliery/AFP]

A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that Texas may go ahead with plans to temporarily ban most abortions during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary stay on a ruling from a lower court that had blocked Texas from enforcing the ban.

The ruling comes amid a wider effort by several conservative states to halt the procedures, an effort abortion rights groups have called an attempt “to exploit a crisis to ban essential care”. 

Texas officials say the ban is necessary to conserve medical supplies for health workers who are responding to the coronavirus, but abortion rights advocates say Texas and other states are using the pandemic as an excuse to block access to the procedure.

In a 2-1 opinion, the appeals court ruled that the order from the lower court – issued Monday – be stayed until an appeal from Texas is considered. The two judges in the majority were nominated to their posts by President Donald Trump and former President George W Bush.

“The temporary stay ordered this afternoon justly prioritises supplies and personal protective equipment for the medical professionals in need,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement released after the decision.

Circuit Court Judge James Dennis, who was appointed by former Democratic President Bill Clinton, dissented, writing “a federal judge has already concluded that irreparable harm would flow from allowing the executive order to prohibit abortions during this critical time.”

The ruling comes after federal judges in two other states on Monday temporarily blocked similar measures. Along with Texas, federal judges in Ohio and Alabama on Monday blocked the bans as unconstitutional.

Lawsuits also were filed in 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.

Oklahoma Governor 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.

On Monday night, US District Judge Myron Thompson issued a temporary restraining order against Alabama’s order, saying the ruling will be in effect through April 13 while he considers additional arguments.

Thompson wrote the state’s concerns about conserving medical equipment during the pandemic, does not “outweigh the serious, and, in some cases, permanent, harms imposed by the denial of an individual’s right to privacy.”

Lawyers for the Alabama clinics said facilities had cancelled appointments for 17 people scheduled this week.

“Patients that have already had their appointments canceled have been devastated; in many instances the calls cancelling the appointments have ended in tears,” lawyers for the clinics wrote.

Alabama closed many nonessential businesses with a state health order, effective Saturday. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said earlier Monday the state would not offer a “blanket exemption” to abortion clinics.

A spokesman for Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Pat Garrett, defended that state’s ban, saying 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 healthcare resources.”

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.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies