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Governors across the country are banning elective surgeries as a result of the coronavirus. In a handful of states, they're also including a ban on all abortions. So far, the courts have intervened to keep most clinics open. But there is an outlier - Texas. There, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has upheld the governor's abortion ban. We have more here from NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Once again, Texas is the epicenter of the legal fight. In other states - Ohio, Iowa, Alabama and Oklahoma - the courts, so far, have sided with abortion providers and their patients - not so in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott signed an executive order barring all non-essential medical procedures, including abortion. Attorney General Ken Paxton is defending the order in court.
KEN PAXTON: No more elective medical procedures can be done in the state because of the potential of needing both people and, you know, beds and supplies and, obviously, doctors and nurses.
TOTENBERG: Nancy Northup, CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, sees things very differently.
NANCY NORTHUP: It is very clear that anti-abortion rights politicians are shamelessly exploiting this crisis to achieve what has been their longstanding ideological goal to ban abortion in the U.S.
PAXTON: This is not targeted at any particular group.
TOTENBERG: Again, Attorney General Paxton.
PAXTON: The goal is to protect people from dying.
TOTENBERG: But the American Medical Association, just last week, filed a brief in this case, as did 18 states, led by New York, the hardest-hit coronavirus state. They maintain that it's far more dangerous to force women to travel long distances to get an abortion, and they also note that pregnant women do not stop needing medical care if they don't get an abortion. Again, Nancy Northup.
NORTHUP: The other thing, I would say, that also puts the light to (ph) this is the fact that they're trying to ban medication abortion as well. That's the use of pills for abortion. And those do not need to take place in a clinic, and they can be done safe and effectively by telemedicine. So it shows that the real goal here, you know, tragically, is shutting down women's right to make the decision to end the pregnancy, not a legitimate public health response.
TOTENBERG: Affidavits filed in the Texas case tell of harrowing experiences as a result of the Texas ban. One declaration was filed by a 24-year-old college student. The week she lost her part-time job as a waitress, she found out she was pregnant. She and her partner agreed they wanted to terminate the pregnancy, and on March 20, she went to a clinic in Fort Worth. Since she was 10 weeks pregnant - still in her first trimester - she was eligible for a medication abortion. Still, under state law, she had to wait 24 hours before her abortion. And the night before her scheduled appointment, the clinic called to cancel because of Governor Abbott's executive order.
My partner was with me, and we cried together, she wrote in her declaration. I couldn't risk the possibility that I would run out of time to have an abortion while the outbreak continued, and it seemed to be getting more and more difficult to travel.
Ultimately, the best option was Denver, a 12-hour drive and 780 miles from where she lived. Driving with a friend, she arrived there on March 26, was examined, given a pill and told to take the second one within 30 hours. But the trip home was difficult. And after dark, they had to stop at a motel to sleep. The woman finally got home and took the second pill just within the 30-hour window.
She said that despite the ordeal, she was grateful she had the money, the car, the friend and the supportive partner with a job to make the abortion possible. Others will not be so lucky, she wrote. But I was desperate, and desperate people take desperate steps to protect themselves. Texas Attorney General Paxton is unmoved.
PAXTON: The narrative has always been it's a choice, so that's the whole narrative. I'm a little surprised by the question given that's sort of the - always been the thing.
TOTENBERG: Yesterday, abortion providers and their patients returned to the district court in Texas instead of appealing directly to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Fifth Circuit Court's ruling from earlier this week. The district court judge, who had originally blocked the governor's ban, instead narrowed the governor's order yesterday so that medical abortions with pills would be exempt from the ban, as well as abortions for women who were up against the state-imposed deadline. Abortions in Texas are banned after 22 weeks. In the end, though, the case may well be headed to the Supreme Court. And because of the addition of two Trump appointees since 2016, the composition of the court is a lot more hostile to abortion rights.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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