Legal Whiplash: Abortion Providers Forced to Cancel Appointments Yet Again After Appeals Court Reinstates Gov. Abbott’s COVID-19 Order Blocking Abortion Access

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This comes one day after a federal district court allowed abortion providers to resume medication abortions and abortion procedures for patients who would otherwise be denied abortion access
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Today, for the second time this week, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against abortion providers, this time granting a stay reversing in part the federal district court’s latest temporary restraining order. This means abortion is once again largely inaccessible in the state of Texas. The ruling is one of many that has created legal whiplash, causing confusion and uncertainty for hundreds of patients in need of essential, time-sensitive abortion care.

Abortion providers — represented by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Lawyering Project — were in the midst of calling patients back to health centers when the 5th Circuit’s ruling came down today. Once again, providers —  Planned Parenthood Center for Choice, Planned Parenthood Greater Texas Surgical Health Services, Planned Parenthood South Texas Surgical Center, Whole Woman’s Health, Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center, and Austin Women’s Health Center — will have to turn patients away unless they will pass the gestational limit for abortions in Texas before April 22 (the day after Gov. Abbott’s order is set to expire). 

Plaintiffs will evaluate this latest ruling from the 5th Circuit and continue exploring every option, including emergency relief from the Supreme Court, in order to ensure patients can access essential, time-sensitive abortion services.

Medical experts including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warned the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals: “Indeed, the Governor’s order is likely to increase, rather than decrease, burdens on hospitals and use of PPE. At the same time, it will severely impair essential health care for women, and it will place doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals in an untenable position by criminalizing necessary medical care.”

 

Statement from Nancy Northup, president & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“Once again, Texas women cannot access abortion--with the important exception of those close to the legal limit, who the Fifth Circuit will allow to go forward. The court is unjustifiably forcing women to wait until the eleventh hour to get the time-sensitive, essential healthcare that they are constitutionally guaranteed. We will pursue all legal options to ensure no women are left behind.”

Statement of Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America:

“We are in a time of crisis — and the state of Texas is sowing fear, confusion, and chaos about whether people can access health care. The same people who are caring for their families, working essential jobs, and trying to make ends meet during this pandemic are now having to experience the trauma of medical uncertainty. This is a nightmare inside of a nightmare. One day patients are called back for their procedures, the next day they are canceled — all at the whim of Gov. Abbott. Abortion is essential because it is time-sensitive. It cannot wait for lengthy legal battles or a pandemic to pass. This political game will have a lasting consequence on Texans for generations to come.”

Statement Rupali Sharma, Senior Counsel and Director at the Lawyering Project:

“Texas politicians are intent on restricting abortion access even as a global pandemic threatens the health and welfare of its residents. With today's ruling, Texans are once again thrown into a state of uncertainty, as many wonder if they'll be forced to carry pregnancies to term or risk their well-being to travel out of state to obtain an abortion in a public health crisis. We will continue to explore all legal options to help ensure Texans — no matter how vulnerable — get the health care they need and deserve.”

Already, courts in Alabama, Ohio and Oklahoma have stepped in to allow abortion providers, just like all other doctors, to decide when to provide essential care. Texas has not shown why its residents deserve less. In fact, according to medical experts, forcing people to carry their pregnancies to term only creates a heavier burden on a hospital system that’s already stretched thin caring for COVID-19 patients.

Texans already have to navigate a long list of state restrictions that force abortion patients to have medically unnecessary face-to-face contact with providers, and for some, push abortion out of reach altogether. These harmful restrictions include state-mandated in-person counseling and a mandatory 24-hour waiting period. For many people, traveling out of state or waiting weeks for their medical care will mean they won’t be able to access an abortion at all.

The plaintiffs in this case — abortion providers throughout Texas — are represented by attorneys from Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Lawyering Project, and the Law Offices of Patrick J. O’Connell PLLC. A copy of the ruling can be found here.

Timeline of legal actions:

  • March 25: A group of Texas abortion providers — represented by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Lawyering Project — sued Gov. Greg Abbott and other state officials to ensure that patients can continue to access essential, time-sensitive abortion services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Press release here.
     
  • March 30: A federal district judge granted Texas abortion providers a temporary restraining order to allow abortion services to continue for the time being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Press release here.
     
  • March 31: The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals put a temporary pause on the temporary restraining order granted by the district court only one day earlier while they reviewed the district court's order, resulting in severely restricted abortion access in Texas. This stay order was granted before abortion providers could make their case to the court. Press release here.
     
  • April 7: In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals used a rare procedural mechanism to rule that the district court was wrong to grant emergency relief to protect access to essential, time-sensitive abortion care. This allowed the State of Texas to continue using Gov. Abbott’s COVID-19 order to block access to abortion. Press release here.
     
  • April 9: A federal district court granted a second temporary restraining order against Gov. Greg Abbott’s COVID-19 order. This decision allowed abortion providers to resume medication abortion as well as abortion procedures for patients who would be unable to access abortion due to their gestational age on April 22 (the day after Gov. Abbott’s executive order is set to expire). Press release here.
     
  • Today (April 10): For the second time, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against abortion providers, this time granting a stay reversing in part the federal district court’s latest temporary restraining order (granted on April 9), which means abortion is once again largely inaccessible in the state of Texas.

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Media Contacts:

Lawyering Project: JMiller@lawyeringproject.org