Governor Had Tried to Use the Trump Pandemic as Cover for an Abortion Ban
Abortion clinics in Texas were set to resume normal operations Wednesday, a month after Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting all non-essential surgeries and procedures due to the coronavirus crisis.
Abbott issued the order, ostensibly to conserve hospital space and personal protective equipment, both of which are in short supply in places like New York, where COVID-19 has overwhelmed hospitals and caused thousands of deaths.
Although the order was set to expire on Wednesday, some uncertainty—and an ongoing legal challenge to that order—remains.
“Governor Abbott issued a new executive order that takes effect tonight at midnight, so abortion providers plan to resume services [Wednesday],” Kelly Krause, the U.S. press officer at the Center for Reproductive Rights told DCReport via email. “The new order allows medical/surgical procedures to be performed if they do not take place in hospitals or require any personal protective equipment from any public source. Abortion definitely falls into that category,” she said.
“However, because the Attorney General has refused to confirm as much, the lawsuit continues as there is still threat of discriminatory enforcement,” Krause added.
According to Abbott’s initial order, healthcare providers should postpone all medical procedures that “are not immediately medically necessary to correct a serious medical condition of, or to preserve the life of, a patient;” Abbott’s order specifically includes abortion, and a March 23 press release from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton affirmed the executive order, saying it prohibits “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother,” including medication abortions.
In Texas, medication abortions can take place at a patient’s home using mifepristone and misoprostol pills up to 10 weeks after a patient’s last period. Procedural abortions can be performed in clinical settings at up to 22 weeks of pregnancy. Under the executive order, the penalty for performing an unnecessary procedure or surgery would be up to $1,000 in fines, up to 180 days in jail, or a combination of the two.
“It’s alarming to see lawmakers like Governor Abbott remain laser-focused on attacking reproductive freedom” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kristin Ford, NARAL Pro-Choice national communications director told DCReport via email. “The false claims made by anti-choice officials to justify upholding these bans lean on dangerous health disinformation and cause direct harm to people seeking abortion care—particularly those who are low-income, live in rural areas, and people of color.”
Days before Abbott’s initial order, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in conjunction with other gynecological and reproductive medicine groups, urged states not to infringe on abortion services during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying in a statement that abortion care 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.”
Shortly after Abbott’s order came down on March 22, several Texas-based and national reproductive health groups challenged it in the US District Court in Austin, seeking a temporary injunction to allow abortions to be performed in the state. That injunction was granted, briefly, the Dallas Observer reported earlier in April, before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the lower court’s ruling. In his dissent, judge James L. Dennis pointed out that carrying a pregnancy to term is more likely to require hospitalization than abortion.
Pro-Abortion Groups Challenge
In a weeks-long ping-pong match, abortion care providers and reproductive rights groups again challenged the ruling, obtaining permission to perform medication abortions and procedural abortions for patients who would pass the state’s 22-week threshold by the time the executive order was set to expire, CBS News reported. But Paxton again challenged that ruling, and on Monday all abortions were again halted in Texas, CBS News reported.
But while the legal back-and-forth went on, Texas women were caught in the crossfire and forced to seek abortion care across state lines. According to Planned Parenthood, 129 patients from Texas traveled to clinics in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico to seek abortion care between March 23 and April 14, NPR reports, up from just 16 such patients in February. And according to the Guttmacher Institute, a Texas woman seeking abortion services under Abbott’s initial order had to drive, on average, 243 miles to obtain care, as opposed to just 12 miles before March 23—potentially spreading or coming into contact with the novel coronavirus on the way.
Compounding those barriers are the additional costs that pregnant people seeking abortions face when traveling to obtain care—lost wages for hourly workers, the financial burden of transportation, childcare and lodging if the state requires a waiting period or multiple clinic visits to obtain abortion care.
Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio, Louisiana, Arkansas, Iowa and Tennessee have all attempted some form of abortion restriction as a result of COVID-19, but courts have overturned portions of those bans, according to CBS News.
Featured image: Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center, Dallas.