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Federal appeals court once again allows Texas to block many abortions

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A nurse practitioner consults with a patient at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Austin. Tamir Kalifa for The Texas Tribune

In the latest turn of a whiplash-inducing federal court battle over Texas GOP officials’ near-total ban on abortion during the novel coronavirus outbreak, a federal appeals court on Friday once again lent support to state officials and prohibited the procedure under all but a few narrow circumstances.

For now, the higher court said, the only patients who may terminate their pregnancies in Texas are those who would pass the legal gestational limit for abortions while a gubernatorial emergency order barring elective medical procedures remains in place. The news comes just a day after a federal district judge in Austin ordered that those patients, as well as others planning to undergo “medication abortions,” which involve ingesting pills, should be permitted to terminate their pregnancies as planned.

Already, hundreds of patients have seen their planned abortions disrupted, and providers have been thrust into uncertainty as the legal status of the procedures they perform has changed as many as three times during a single week.

The litigation is far from complete, with deadlines as soon this weekend for attorneys on both sides of the case to make more arguments before the court.

Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton cited a March 22 executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott, which barred medical procedures that are not “immediately medically necessary”, and declared that all abortions were prohibited except those critical to the life or health of the patient.

Calling that move political opportunism, abortion providers quickly sued. State officials had claimed the ban is critical to preserve medical resources like masks and gloves as the state battles a pandemic. But providers told the courts that abortions, particularly medication abortions, which involve ingesting pills, consume little personal protective equipment.

Over the last few weeks, the litigation, which has ping-ponged back and forth between the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and the Austin-based U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, has by turns left nearly all abortions illegal in the state, and then made many legal as usual.