AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge on Monday blocked a Texas policy that temporarily closed abortion clinics as part of the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Responding to a lawsuit by abortion providers, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said the policy amounted to a ban on abortion in violation of the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent.
“Regarding a woman’s right to a pre-fetal-viability abortion, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly. There can be no outright ban on such a procedure,” Yeakel wrote.
Yeakel issued a temporary restraining order blocking officials from pursuing criminal charges against abortion providers based on an emergency order issued March 22 by Gov. Greg Abbott.
In that order, Abbott barred health care providers from performing elective surgeries and procedures as part of an effort to increase hospital beds and conserve medical equipment — particularly gowns, gloves and face shields — that may be needed to treat a growing number of COVID-19 cases.
One day later, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the order banned any abortion unless a woman’s life or health were in danger — an exception that would allow relatively few abortions.
Paxton vowed to aggressively pursue criminal charges against violators, who could face up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
In response, abortion clinics across the state canceled scheduled appointments and closed down, declining to offer not only surgical abortions but drug-induced procedures as well, noting that Paxton said the emergency order barred “any type of abortion” in Texas.
Abortion providers sued Texas last week, arguing that the policy violated the constitutionally protected right of women to decide whether to have an abortion and was a thinly disguised effort “to exploit a public health crisis to advance an extreme, anti-abortion agenda.”
In his order, Yeakel said Abbott’s executive order, as written, did not exceed the governor’s power to deal with the coronavirus emergency.
Paxton, however, went too far, the judge determined.
“The attorney general’s interpretation of the Executive Order prevents Texas women from exercising what the Supreme Court has declared is their fundamental constitutional right,” Yeakel wrote.
“This court will not speculate on whether the Supreme Court included a silent ‘except-in-a-national-emergency clause’ in its previous writings on the issue. Only the Supreme Court may restrict the breadth of its rulings,” Yeakel added.
Yeakel’s restraining order extends to April 13, when the judge will hold a hearing by telephone to determine whether to issue an injunction barring the state from requiring abortions only to preserve a woman’s life and health during the coronavirus emergency.
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