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Texas and Ohio Use Coronavirus Pandemic as 'Cynical Cover for Abortion Bans,' Ordering Clinics to Halt Care

"In times of national crisis, we have seen egregious acts that have circumvented our freedoms before. And make no mistake—we are seeing them today."

The attorneys general of Texas and Ohio are both attempting to curb abortion rights in their states amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Mikasi/Flickr/cc)

Reproductive rights defenders condemned the Republican-led governments of Ohio and Texas Monday after both states announced they would further attack residents' access to safe, legal abortion care as part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Monday directed abortion providers in the state to offer the procedure only in cases where a pregnant patient's life or health is in danger as part of the state order to halt all "non-essential" surgeries to preserve resources during the outbreak.

"People decide to end their pregnancies for a complex constellation of reasons that include the impact of pregnancy and birth on their health, ability to work, and strained economic circumstances. These are conditions that do not go away—and are likely heightened—in pandemic conditions."
—Kellie Copeland, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio

Paxton threatened facilities and procedures which continue providing abortions with fines of up to $1,000 and up to 180 days in jail.

The new restriction ignores the fact that abortion care is "time-sensitive," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Women's Health, a clinic which has faced legal challenges from the state government before.

"Emergency actions during a global pandemic should advance health and safety for us all, not force people to delay much-needed care and possibly exacerbate their health situations by doing so," Miller told CBS News. "Patients cannot wait until this pandemic is over to receive safe abortion care."

Paxton's directive comes two months after he called on the U.S. Supreme Court to repeal its ruling in 2016 Whole Women's Health vs. Hellerstadt, in which the court rejected the state's attempt to shut down the clinic by enforcing onerous and medically unnecessary restrictions. 

Like the previous restrictions, said Rosann Mariappuram, head of Texas-based pro-choice group Jane's Due Process, Paxton's new rule "serves NO public health benefit" and is an "abuse of power."

Other critics weighed in on social media, with at least one accusing the state of using the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread to more than 46,000 Americans, "as an excuse to criminalize abortion."

"Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care," said the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) in a joint statement with several other women's health organizations last week. It is also 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. The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person's life, health, and well-being."

Paxton's announcement followed a similar declaration from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who said over the weekend that so-called "non-essential" abortions must be suspended as healthcare providers fight the pandemic.

At least five of the state's abortion clinics said they would not stop providing abortion care despite the order, deeming the procedure essential.

Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, pointed out that patients seek abortions for a wide variety of reasons that are crucial to their well-being, and cautioned against further limiting access to care as millions in the U.S. face job loss and reduced income due to the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis.

"People decide to end their pregnancies for a complex constellation of reasons that include the impact of pregnancy and birth on their health, ability to work, and strained economic circumstances," Copeland said. "These are conditions that do not go away—and are likely heightened—in pandemic conditions." 

"Medical care shouldn't be determined by politicians pushing their own self-serving agenda—peoples' needs must always come first, especially at a time like this."
—Ilyse Hogue, NARAL Pro-Choice America

Ohio's Republican government has a history of attacking reproductive rights. The state passed one of the country's most restrictive anti-choice laws last year, barring women from obtaining abortion care past their sixth week of pregnancy—before many women even know they are pregnant. The law was halted by a federal judge.

Yost's new restriction "is part of a coordinated effort" to attack reproductive rights, NARAL Pro-Choice America said.

"Governor DeWine and Attorney General Yost's close ties to extreme anti-choice groups like Ohio Right to Life are no secret," said NARAL President Ilyse Hogue. "Medical care shouldn't be determined by politicians pushing their own self-serving agenda—peoples' needs must always come first, especially at a time like this."

While other states have also announced restrictions on "non-essential" surgeries and procedures to conserve resources for fighting the pandemic, at least two—Massachusetts and Washington—have clarified that abortion care is not considered non-essential.

That hasn't stopped conservative state leaders from overreaching on reproductive rights "under the guise of 'security' or adherence to 'law and order,'" the Ohio Democratic Women's Legislative Caucus said.

"In times of national crisis, we have seen egregious acts that have circumvented our freedoms before," the caucus added. "And make no mistake—we are seeing them today."

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