By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) – Federal judges on Monday blocked officials in Texas, Ohio and Alabama from banning most abortions in those states as part of their orders to postpone surgeries and other procedures deemed not medically necessary during the coronavirus crisis.
The rulings came in a series of legal actions aimed at blocking steps by various Republican-led states cracking down on abortion during the pandemic.
The first of the decisions involved Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s announcement last week that abortion providers were covered by a state order that required postponement of non-urgent medical procedures to preserve hospital beds and equipment during the pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin ruled that Paxton’s action “prevents Texas women from exercising what the Supreme Court has declared is their fundamental constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable.”
The Texas lawsuit was filed last Wednesday after clinics said they were forced to cancel hundreds of appointments for abortions across the state.
“Abortion is essential healthcare, and it’s a time-sensitive service, especially during a public health crisis,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider with three clinics in Texas and a plaintiff in the case.
“To the politicians who used this global pandemic to push their anti-abortion agenda, shame on you,” she added.
Marc Rylander, a spokesman for Paxton, expressed disappointment in the ruling and promised an appeal.
Abortion providers in Ohio, Iowa, Alabama and Oklahoma filed similar litigation on Monday to block state officials from using coronavirus-related orders to limit abortion availability.
Judges in Ohio and Alabama issued orders later on Monday blocking the states from enforcing the coronavirus-related restrictions against abortion providers.
Courts were working on an urgent basis as clinics warned that some patients were reaching the legal time limit to get the procedure.
Abortion providers have said the restrictions violate the right to abortion under the U.S. Constitution as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
The states have said they have broad powers to issue emergency rules to protect the health and safety of their residents. Texas said in a court filing: “Individual rights, including abortion, may be temporarily curtailed in a time of emergency.”
Paxton said on March 23 the state order meant that any abortion that “is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother” must cease. Failure to comply could result in penalties of up to $1,000 or 180 days in jail.
Abortion rights advocates have criticized the state actions as political opportunism during the pandemic.
“It’s not surprising that the states that are now using the COVID crisis to stop people from getting abortion care are the very same states that have history of passing laws to ban abortion or using sham rationales to shut down clinics,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jennifer Dalven.
COVID-19 is the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
The ACLU represents abortion providers in Ohio, Alabama and Iowa.
In Ohio, the abortion clinics told U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett in Cincinnati that they feared being immediately shut down and prosecuted if they did not stop providing surgical abortions.
“Some of these patients will be forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will and at risk to their health amidst a health system overburdened by responding to COVID-19,” the clinics said in a legal filing.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)