DALLAS, Texas — Texas has said that elective surgeries, including abortions, must halt to free up medical supplies for the response to the coronavirus, but pro-abortion rights groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the order on behalf of the state's abortion clinics.
“It is unconscionable that abortion providers are fighting against the health of Texans and withholding desperately needed supplies and personal protective equipment in favor of a procedure that they refer to as a ‘choice’,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Twitter March 25.
“My office will tirelessly defend Governor Abbott’s Order to ensure that necessary supplies reach the medical professionals combating this national health crisis,” he said.
There are over 1,200 cases of coronavirus in Texas, and at least a dozen people have died. While the infection is not deadly for most people, and requires hospitalization only in a minority of cases, there is still a danger of hospitals exceeding their capacity to care for new patients. Supplies are already short.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide order March 22 barring non-essential surgeries through April 21. The attorney general later said elective abortions would not be considered essential surgeries. Failure to comply with the Texas executive order could mean fines of up to $1,000 or 180 days in jail.
The lawsuit challenging the order was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood, and the Lawyering Project
“The Texas attorney general’s enforcement threats are a blatant effort to exploit a public health crisis to advance an extreme, anti-abortion agenda,” the lawsuit charged.
It argued that the ban on elective abortions does not free up hospital space or supplies of personal protective equipment to respond to the new coronavirus pandemic. Continued pregnancy would “impose far greater strains on an already taxed health care system, as prenatal care and delivery involve much greater exhaustion of hospital health care services and (supplies of personal protective equipment) than abortions.”
“Abortion is essential healthcare, and it is a time-sensitive service,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman´s Health, the Associated Press reports. Her organization's three Texas abortion clinics in Austin, Fort Worth, and McAllen have been forced to cancel more than 150 appointments in the last week. This has left some women “begging for the abortions they needed,” she said.
“It is shameful that our politicians are using emergency actions during a global pandemic to push their anti-abortion agenda,” Miller told reporters, the Austin American Statesman reports.
Paxton told Texas Values March 25 that the governor's emergency order blocking medically unnecessary procedures aimed to make clear “all medical procedures that were unnecessary should be stopped, and that definitely includes elective abortions.”
“The truth is abortion, for the most part, is an elective procedure that can be done later,” he said. While he acknowledged that limiting abortion surgeries would “save some lives,” he focused his remarks on medical resources.
“I don’t even see how people who are on the other side of this issue at this time would dispute that we need our hospitals to take care of the really sick,” Paxton said.
The pro-abortion rights groups' lawsuit further claims the order wrongly singles out abortion providers and their patients for differential treatment, compared to other medical providers and patients. The order “effectively bans abortion in Texas for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” said the lawsuit.
Delays in securing abortion for women means “attendant risks to their health, well-being, and economic security,” said the lawsuit, which argued that women should not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term against their wishes.
“COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout do not reduce patients´ needs for abortion; if anything, they make timely access to abortion even more urgent,” it said.
The lawsuit also objects to the ban on medical abortion, saying it is not surgery or a procedure. It argues that this shows the order explicitly aimed to limit abortion access.
Paxton's initial remarks stressed the need for Texans to work together to stop the spread of the coronavirus and to “ensure that our health care professionals and facilities have all the resources they need to fight the virus at this time.”
“No one is exempt from the governor’s executive order on medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures, including abortion providers. Those who violate the governor’s order will be met with the full force of the law,” he said.
In Ohio, the state Department of Health canceled all non-essential or elective surgical abortions that use personal protective equipment. Officials said that abortion clinics were not singled out and letters of violation were also sent to a urology group that allegedly continued to perform surgeries.
Ohio’s health department asked the state attorney general to issue a cease and desist order to Preterm, a Cleveland-based abortion clinic that continues to perform elective abortions despite statewide orders against elective surgeries.
In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves said that state directives to postpone elective and non-essential medical procedures apply to abortion. He pledged support for “whatever action we need to to protect the not only the lives of unborn children, but also the lives of anyone who may contract this particular virus,” CBS News reports.
Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the State Health Officer at the Mississippi Department of Health, said he would review the situation.
In Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, where pro-abortion rights support is strong, officials have said that orders halting elective surgeries do not apply to abortions.
A March 18 joint statement from eight medical groups including the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, which tends to take pro-abortion rights stands, asserted that abortion is “an essential component of comprehensive health care.”
The groups argued that abortion is “a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible.” Not being able to obtain an abortion has consequences that “profoundly impact a person’s life, health, and well-being.”
On March 24, the Catholic Medical Association, along with several other medical groups, issued a statement critical of the March 18 pro-abortion rights statement.
The Catholic Medical Association statement said that abortion “generates more patients to be seen in already overburdened emergency rooms.” Abortion providers themselves instruct women to go to an emergency room if they have any concerning symptoms.
“Approximately 5% of women who undergo medication abortions will require evaluation in an emergency room, most commonly for hemorrhage,” the statement said. “Surgical abortions can also result in hemorrhage. Emergency room personnel – who are already struggling to meet the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic – will be further strained to provide care to these women.”
Some abortion providers are seeking medical supplies despite the need to fight the coronavirus.
Planned Parenthood of Keystone, Pennsylvania posted social media posts March 24 soliciting donations of personal protective equipment including hand sanitizer, home sewn masks, shoe covers, and surgical hats.