U.S. appeals court lets Texas curb medication abortions during pandemic

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Monday allowed Texas to enforce curbs on medication-induced abortions as part of the Republican-governed state’s restrictions aimed at postponing medical procedures not deemed urgent during the coronavirus pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: An exam room at the Planned Parenthood South Austin Health Center is shown following the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas law imposing strict regulations on abortion doctors and facilities in Austin, Texas, U.S. June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Ilana Panich-Linsman/File Photo

A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a federal judge’s order blocking the state from applying restrictions to abortions induced through medication, in the early stages of a pregnancy. About half of all abortions in Texas are performed through medication, which involves taking two pills by mouth.

The 5th Circuit said that in blocking the Texas actions to curb abortions during the pandemic, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin usurped the state’s authority “to craft emergency public health measures.”

Texas is one of several conservative states that have pursued limits on abortion during the pandemic, saying they want to ensure that medical resources including protective equipment are available to help healthcare facilities cope with people with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

Abortion providers including Whole Woman’s Health and Planned Parenthood sued Texas on March 25, calling the restrictions a violation of the right to abortion under the U.S. Constitution as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. They expressed dismay at the 5th Circuit’s ruling.

“A global pandemic is no time to restrict time-sensitive healthcare,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, adding that the restrictions were a “nightmare within a nightmare.”

Abortion rights advocates have accused the states of political opportunism by using the pandemic to advance anti-abortion policies.

In the fast-moving litigation, the 5th Circuit previously allowed the state to enforce a near-total ban on surgical and medication-induced abortions as part of its emergency response. After Yeakel then narrowed his temporary injunction to specifically allow medication abortions, the state again appealed to the 5th Circuit.

The three-judge panel on Monday sided with the state, but left in place a portion of Yeakel’s decision that prevented the state from banning surgical abortions for women who would be past the legal limit for the procedure by the time Governor Greg Abbott’s emergency order was set to expire at the end of Tuesday.

The Republican governor’s initial order, issued on March 22, halted surgeries and procedures considered “not immediately medically necessary.” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, also a Republican, said the order prohibited “any type” of abortion not necessary to protect the mother’s life or health, with penalties of up to $1,000 or 180 days in jail.

“I am pleased that the 5th Circuit once again ruled in favor of the health and safety needs of our communities and hard-working medical professionals during this unprecedented medical crisis,” Paxton said in a statement.

Though Abbott’s emergency order was due to expire, he last week issued a fresh emergency order that runs until May 8.

Asked whether the latest order would also prohibit abortions, Paxton’s office noted that, like the initial order, it applies to all licensed healthcare professionals and facilities. In court papers, the abortion providers said they should be exempt from the latest order.

Abortion providers said medication abortion should not be halted because it is not a procedure at all and does not require the use of protective equipment.

The state disputed that contention, saying that medication abortion is a procedure and that protective equipment is used as part of the physical exams and follow-up exams or if there are complications requiring an emergency room visit.

Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham