DES MOINES, Iowa – Federal judges on Monday temporarily blocked efforts in Texas and Alabama to ban abortions during the coronavirus pandemic, handing Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers a victory as clinics across the U.S. filed lawsuits to stop states from trying to shutter them during the outbreak.
A new Ohio order is also unconstitutional if it prevents abortions from being carried out, a separate judge ruled Monday. The ruling instructed clinics to determine on a case-by-case basis if an abortion can be delayed to maximize resources — such as preserving personal protective equipment — needed to fight the coronavirus. If the abortion is deemed necessary and can’t be delayed, it’s declared legally essential.
The rulings indicated judges were pushing back on Republican-controlled states including abortion in sweeping orders as the outbreak grows in the U.S. In Texas, the ruling came down after state Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said abortion was included in a statewide ban on nonessential surgeries.
But U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said the “Supreme Court has spoken clearly" on a woman's right to abortion. One abortion provider in Texas, Whole Woman's Health, said it had canceled more than 150 appointments in the days after the Texas order went into effect.
“There can be no outright ban on such a procedure," Yeakel wrote. Paxton said the state would appeal.
The rulings happened Monday as lawsuits were also 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. Their aim, like abortion providers in Texas, is to stop state officials from prohibiting abortions as part of temporary policy changes related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Oklahoma Gov. 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.
A spokesman for Stitt referred questions about the challenge to Attorney General Mike Hunter, who vowed in a statement to defend the ban.
“My office will vigorously defend the governor’s executive order and the necessity to give precedence to essential medical procedures during this daunting public health crisis," Hunter's statement said. "Make no mistake, this lawsuit will itself drain significant resources, medical and legal, from emergency efforts, and likely, directly and indirectly, bring harm to Oklahomans as a result."
Monday night, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued a temporary restraining order against Alabama's order, saying the ruling with 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."
Attorneys for the Alabama clinics said facilities had canceled 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.
In Ohio, Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics that sued last year to try to thwart a law that bans most abortions after a first detectable fetal heartbeat are asking a court to speed up its decision in that case and to consider a recent coronavirus order by the state health director. In filings Monday, the groups’ attorneys argued “the state is again attempting to ban abortions” through Dr. Amy Acton’s directive barring all “non-essential” procedures and Attorney General Dave Yost’s threats that it will be rigidly enforced.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said 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 health care resources.”
Reynolds said Sunday the move was not based on her personal ideology but a broad order to halt nonessential procedures to conserve medical equipment.
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.
Weber reported from Austin, Texas. AP Writers Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; Kimberly Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama; Julie Smyth in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this story.