AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Planned Parenthood and several other abortion providers sued Texas’ Republican leaders in federal court Wednesday, challenging an executive order that temporarily halts all nonessential surgeries due to fears it may be used to block nonsurgical abortions as the state seeks to conserve medical supplies and clear hospital beds to handle the Covid-19 pandemic.
Robin Wallace, co-medical director at Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas, and seven Texas abortion providers and clinics sued Attorney General Ken Paxton, Governor Greg Abbott and several district attorneys in federal court in Austin.
The plaintiffs say Abbott’s three-day-old executive order violates their due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment and seek injunctive and declaratory relief. The order remains in effect through April 21 and also suspends state regulations limiting the occupancy of hospital rooms, which allows hospitals to treat more than one patient in a room and boost capacity.
The abortion providers argue that one day after the order was issued, Paxton issued his own press release that specifically singled them out, “suggesting that he believed provision of non-emergency abortions would violate” the order.
“The release states that ‘[t]hose who violate the governor’s order will be met with the full force of the law’ and threatened criminal penalties, including jail time,” the 26-page complaint states. “By stating the Executive Order applies to ‘any type of abortion,’ the Attorney General’s news release suggests it even prohibits medication abortion, which involves only taking medications by mouth and it is not ‘surgery’ or a ‘procedure’ that falls within the terms of the Executive Order. This appears to be the only oral medication targeted in this manner.”
Paxton said Monday that violators will face up to $1,000 in fines or 180 days in jail.
“No one is exempt from the governor’s executive order on medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures, including abortion providers,” he said.
The plaintiffs say that without an injunction, they will be forced to continue to turn away patients seeking abortion care.
“At a minimum, those patients will not be able to obtain an abortion for weeks or even months, given that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to last far beyond the order’s state expiration date,” the complaint states. “Some will not be able to access abortion at all and will be forced to carry pregnancies to term.”
Abortion opponents quickly cheered Abbott’s order and Paxton’s statement. Texas Right to Life said Monday abortion providers have “been consuming and hoarding medical supplies that are in desperate need around the state including masks, gloves, and other protective gear for medical professionals.”
Paxton’s office could not immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuit after office hours Wednesday evening.
The plaintiffs are represented by the non-profit Center for Reproductive Rights and the Lawyering Project. The center accuses Texas of “abusing the state’s emergency powers” in ordering the ban.
“Abortion is an essential, time-sensitive procedure that cannot be delayed,” it tweeted Wednesday evening. “It’s time out lawmakers start acting like it.”
Planned Parenthood said its health centers “are doing their part to conserve needed resources” and to protect their patients and staff.
“While we are all concerned about this global pandemic, what is most important is that decisions are make by science and medical experts, not politics,” it tweeted.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Board of Obstetrics & Gynecology, along with other medical groups, said on March 18 they do not support the cancellation or delay of abortions in response to the pandemic.
“To the extent that hospital systems or ambulatory surgical facilities are categorizing procedures that can be delayed during the Covid-19 pandemic, abortion should not be categorized as such a procedure,” the groups said.
“Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care. 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,” they added. “The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person’s life, health, and well-being.”