Pandemic sparks new front in abortion wars

NARAL Pro-Choice Texas is one of several groups calling on states to waive some abortion restrictions so that women can more easily take an abortion pill at home without physically traveling multiple times to a clinic as they currently must — a requirement they argue puts both patients and doctors at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“State leaders should ensure that Texans who need care can access it with the least amount of obstacles and medically unnecessary visits possible,” said the group’s executive director, Aimee Arrambide.

The realities of the pandemic could further limit access while putting legal fights over abortion rights in limbo.

Travel restrictions may ground abortion providers who live in coronavirus hot spots like New York, Washington state and California who previously made regular trips to serve regions with few, if any, providers. The economic hardship unleashed by the pandemic could also make it harder for working-class people to afford travel to a clinic and the cost of the procedure.

And with many courts suspending proceedings during the pandemic, any lawsuit challenging states’ moves to close clinics could be put on hold indefinitely.

The Texas order on abortion clinics, outlined on Monday, sets a monthlong ban on elective procedures, including any abortions that are not not “medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” Nearly half of the state’s abortion clinics closed between 2012 and 2016 amid a wave of state laws targeting their funding and operation.

Ohio’s “stay at home” order, which lasts until April 6, appears less stringent, without specific penalties for violations. Yet it did single out abortion clinics with targeted letters to the state’s providers, even as businesses including gun stores and marijuana dispensaries were deemed essential and allowed to remain open. The state has passed some of the country’s most sweeping abortion bills in recent years, including a ban on all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected that hasn’t taken effect amid court challenges.

The Ohio attorney general’s office told POLITICO Tuesday morning that it had not yet received any reports of violations from the Department of Health about the clinics.

Still, with the scope of enforcement not yet known, progressive lawmakers and abortion rights groups warn the new orders will cause widespread harm by eliminating what little access to abortion remains.

“There is potential for a lot of unintended consequences,” said Texas Democratic state Rep. Donna Howard, including forcing a woman into “having a pregnancy continue with severe fetal abnormalities.”

Howard said she’s speaking with reproductive rights lawyers who are trying to parse the attorney general’s statement to better understand the possible consequences.

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