AGs Seek To Halt Abortions As Virus Strains Health Capacity

Law360 (March 23, 2020, 11:12 PM EDT) -- Republican state attorneys general have begun threatening abortion providers with legal action if they don't halt most services, contending that procedures to end pregnancies would sap medical resources needed for the coronavirus crisis, newly released documents show.

The newest effort came late Monday afternoon when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warned health care providers not to move forward with "any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother."

Paxton's warning stemmed from an executive order that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed on Sunday to preserve health care resources for patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The Texas attorney general on Monday threatened fines and up to 180 days in jail for providers who defy the order.

"Those who violate the governor's order will be met with the full force of the law," Paxton wrote.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has also moved in recent days to largely suspend abortion services. In three letters obtained Monday by Law360, Yost ordered providers — including Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio — to "immediately stop performing non-essential and elective surgical abortions" and warned that "all appropriate measures" would be pursued to address any noncompliance.

The Ohio attorney general sent his letter on Friday, but the website of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio late Monday said, "We are still open and seeing patients."

Also late Monday, the website of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas had a similar message that said, "Currently all health centers are open as scheduled."

Officials with the Planned Parenthood clinics could not immediately be reached for comment.

Bethany McCorkle, a spokesperson for Yost, told Law360 in an email on Monday that Yost was responding to the Ohio Department of Health's recent order for providers to limit elective procedures in light of the COVID-19 situation.

"This is not an abortion issue," McCorkle said. "A letter was also sent to a urology group that was allegedly performing elective surgeries."

The Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, CEO of the National Abortion Federation, which supports abortion rights, responded to Yost's move with a searing statement.

"Abortion is time-sensitive, essential health care, and it is utterly shameful that Attorney General Yost is exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to cut patients off from the care they need," Ragsdale said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last week advised health care providers across the country to cancel elective procedures that aren't urgent, saying that "conservation of critical resources" is crucial as coronavirus infections skyrocket. Officials with HHS could not immediately be reached for comment late Monday on whether the department believes that abortions should usually be treated as nonessential elective procedures.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which recently argued a major abortion case at the U.S. Supreme Court, also pushed back Monday against the idea that many abortions aren't essential services.

"People have always needed abortions. People will always need abortions," the group wrote on Twitter. "Access to abortion care is essential. Period."

--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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