His executive order applies to “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”
Texas abortion rights advocates are suing state leaders over an executive order temporarily banning abortions during the coronavirus pandemic.
In their lawsuit filed Wednesday afternoon in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texa, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood, and The Lawyering Project are seeking a temporary restraining order blocking the ban while they pursue a more permanent injunction. The groups represent several abortion providers in the state, including Austin Women’s Health Center and Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center.
The lawsuit comes after Texas Gov. Greg Abbot signed an executive order on Sunday postponing “all surgeries and procedures that are not immediately, medically necessary to correct a serious medical condition or to preserve the life of a patient.” Abbot’s directive is intended to curb the use of medical supplies hospitals will need as they continue to deal with a rising number of COVID-19 cases.
Attorney General Ken Paxton clarified on Monday the ban applies to “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother,” and that failure to comply with Abbot’s order is punishable with fines of up to $1,000 or 180 days in jail.
“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,” Paxton said in a statement.
Abbott and Paxton’s actions drew immediate backlash from providers, with Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson calling it an exploitation of the current crisis. Abbot and Paxton are both notoriously anti-abortion and have worked to gut abortion rights in the state of Texas.
The advocacy groups wrote in their lawsuit that the ban was unconstitutional and deprives people “of their fundamental right to determine when and whether to have a child or to add to their existing families,” which would cause “them to suffer significant constitutional, medical, emotional, and other harm.”
“It’s unconscionable that the Texas Attorney General is exploiting this pandemic to end abortion in the state,” added Nancy Northup, president and CEO, Center for Reproductive Rights. “Texas is abusing the state’s emergency powers and we are filing suit today to stop it.”
Paxton said that the ban on procedures and surgeries that were not “medically necessary” is intended to “ensure that our health care professionals and facilities have all the resources they need to fight the virus at this time.”
But Dr. Daniel Grossman, director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a collaborative research group, said banning abortions would do little to free up medical resources, such as hospital beds and PPE (personal protective equipment) like gloves, masks, and gowns.
“This is a baseless argument,” Grossman said on Twitter.
Grossman, whose research is focused on abortion and contraception, pointed out that of the 52,103 abortions performed for Texas residents in 2017, only 87 abortions were performed at a hospital. Grossman also cited multiple studies showing that patients are rarely hospitalized for abortion-related complications, with one study from California finding that less than 1% of abortion patients went to an emergency room for a complaint related to an abortion.
“These data make it clear that canceling abortion procedures will not free up hospital beds or ER space,” Grossman said. He also made clear that the few abortions carried out at hospitals would not strain the state’s PPE supplies.
“Here’s what a first-trimester abortion in a clinic requires in terms of PPE: 2 pairs of gloves (1 for the ultrasound and 1 for the procedure) and a reusable face shield. A gown and mask are not usually required. That’s it,” Grossman wrote.
Grossman suggested that if the state really wanted to prevent COVID-19 and preserve PPE, then they would “encourage the use of telemedicine to provide the abortion pill.”
But Paxton’s phrasing insinuates that even medication abortions, where people take a regimen of pills by mouth, are banned, even though they’re not a “surgery” or “procedure.” Abortion rights advocates say that a ban on medication abortions makes clear that Paxton’s aim is not to save medical resources for treating COVID-19 cases, but ban abortion.
“By stating that the Executive Order applies to ‘any type of abortion,’ the Attorney General’s news release suggests it even prohibits medication abortion,” the lawsuit reads. “This appears to be the only oral medication targeted in this manner.”
Advocates have also emphasized that abortion itself is essential health care. Providers have already been forced to turn away patients, and such delays could “profoundly impact a person’s life, health, and well-being,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology said in a statement.
Whole Women’s Health, which operates two Texas abortion clinics, in Fort Worth and in Austin, has had to cancel more than 150 appointments this week, according to Amy Hagstrom Miller, the group’s president and CEO. Miller told the Texas Tribune that her organization will use emergency funds to help patients get care in other states. “We cannot sit idly by while the state is forcing Texans to be pregnant against their will,” she said.
Paxton took to Twitter to criticize the lawsuit. “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,’” he wrote.
Abortion rights advocates disagreed and did not mince words about how they felt.
“Gov. Abbott and anti-abortion activists nationwide are forcing a legal and political fight in the middle of a public health crisis,” Alexis McGill-Johnson of Planned Parenthood said in a statement. “Elected leaders are expending valuable time and resources exploiting a global pandemic to score political points instead of rallying to respond to this crisis. This will place lives in jeopardy.”