Federal Judge Temporarily Halts Ohio Order Banning Surgical Abortions During Coronavirus Crisis

Federal Judge Temporarily Halts Ohio Order Banning Surgical Abortions During Coronavirus Crisis
Photo via Progress Ohio/Flickr
A federal judge has put a temporary hold on an order by Ohio officials to cease surgical abortions during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ohio Department of Health issued an order on March 18 telling medical facilities to cease elective surgeries whenever possible to conserve scarce personal protective equipment and medical capacity.

That, state officials later clarified, included surgical abortions that weren't necessary to save the life of the mother.

"You and your facility are ordered to immediately stop performing non-essential and elective surgical abortions," Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost wrote in a March 20 letter to clinics. "Non-essential surgical abortions are those that can be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of a patient."

But U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett yesterday paused that part of the order for 14 days in response to a motion from Ohio abortion providers claiming that the ban would effectively end abortions taking place 10 weeks after conception or later.

In his ruling granting the temporary restraining order, Barrett wrote that Ohio officials pushing for the ban on surgical abortions during the coronavirus crisis didn't demonstrate that the conservation of medical supplies it would achieve would be significant enough that it "outweighs the harm of eliminating abortion."

"Enforcement of the Director’s Order as applied to surgical abortion procedures will result in an unconstitutional deprivation of Plaintiffs’ patients’ Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process because enforcement creates a substantial obstacle in the path of patients seeking pre-viability abortions, thus creating an undue burden on abortion access,” Barrett wrote.

Women's health providers Preterm, Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio, Women's Med Group and the Northeast Ohio Women's Center filed the motion.

Yost says he will appeal Barrett's ruling. He says the only reason the state issued the order is to save lives during the COVID-19 crisis.

Abortion providers disagree, saying that anti-abortion officials are using the crisis as an excuse to limit abortions.

“Planned Parenthood knows our patients’ health care cannot wait," Planned Parenthood Greater Ohio Executive Director Iris Harvey said in a joint statement with Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio CEO Kersha Deibel. "That’s why we took action quickly. Abortion is an essential, time-sensitive medical procedure. Today’s ruling is a victory no health care provider should have to fight for in the middle of a pandemic. Anti-abortion activists are creating dangerous distractions when we need public officials to be focusing on the crisis at hand."

A federal judge in Texas issued a similar order for an abortion ban related to COVID-19 there. U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel said Texas' ban would do "irreparable harm" to abortion providers there.

Yeakel also wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court must ultimately decide whether or not banning abortion during a pandemic is constitutional. It is unclear if the high court would take up the cases.
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