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Abortion providers sue Texas over coronavirus-related order

A Planned Parenthood examination room in Austin.      Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
A Planned Parenthood examination room in Austin. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging an executive order earlier this week that included abortion in a ban of all procedures that are deemed to not be medically necessary.

In a press conference Wednesday, national and state abortion rights groups said they are seeking a temporary restraining order, with hopes of a more permanent injunction to follow. They are representing various abortion providers in the state, including Austin Women's Health Center and Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center.

The ban, which Attorney General Ken Paxton later clarified applies to abortion clinics as well, was enacted to ensure the state maintains health care capacity as it prepares for an influx of COVID-19 patients. But abortion clinics and activists in the state pushed back almost immediately, with Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson calling it an “exploitation” of the current crisis.

Sealy Massingill, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, took politicians to task for “playing politics” at a critical time. Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas still plans to keep clinics open, though he said the organization is bracing for further developments.

“I find it extremely distressing… that we are trying to respond to a purely political fight that [Gov. Greg Abbott] started. Patients who need abortions are on a time-sensitive deadline,” Massingill said.

Providers have already had to turn away patients, Massingill added, and delays of even a few weeks could render some abortions impossible if they extend past legal deadlines.

Whole Women’s Health operates two Texas abortion clinics, in Fort Worth and in Austin. Amy Hagstrom Miller, the group's president and CEO, said clinical staff had to cancel more than 150 appointments following the governor’s order, something she said creates “a health crisis on top of a health crisis.”

“We cannot sit idly by while the state is forcing Texans to be pregnant against their will,” Miller said.

Miller said emergency funds will be used for patients with canceled appointments in an attempt to get them care out of state.

In a statement from Paxton's office on Monday, the attorney general said offenders will be met with "the full force of the law." Violations carry a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days of jail, according to the statement.

“No one is exempt from the governor’s executive order on medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures, including abortion providers," the statement reads.

Marsha Jones, the executive director of The Afiya Center, a Dallas-based reproductive rights group, said Wednesday that banning abortions, even temporarily, poses a higher risk on some vulnerable communities, like low-income women or women of color.

“We literally cannot allow people to use a global health crisis to force women into making choices that are not good for them," Jones said.

Abortion rights groups in Ohio signaled a similar pushback this week after Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced a similar ban. Currently, it appears that Texas and Ohio are the only states to have enacted health care bans that are directed, in part, toward abortion clinics.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood and Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.