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Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), along with other pro-choice groups, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and several other state officials over a temporary ban on elective abortion during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ban was issued as part of an executive order by Abbott aimed at conserving medical equipment and the capacity of the health care system after warnings from health care professionals that patients sick with the coronavirus might overwhelm hospital capacity and deplete supplies, such as personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses.
Pro-choice activists say the ban was issued in bad faith and limits access to an "essential" procedure.
"Gov. Abbott and anti-abortion activists nationwide are forcing a legal and political fight in the middle of a public health crisis," PPFA acting president and CEO Alexis McGill-Johnson said. "Elected leaders are expending valuable time and resources exploiting a global pandemic to score political points instead of rallying to respond to this crisis."
Nancy Northrop, the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement that even a temporary ban on abortion would harm women in Texas.
"Abortion care is time-sensitive and essential health care that has a profound impact on a person’s health and life, which is why it is protected as a constitutional right. Texas is abusing the state’s emergency powers and we are filing suit today to stop it," she said.
Paxton, however, countered that it is abortion providers who are acting in bad faith and putting the lives of Texans at risk.
"It is unconscionable that abortion providers are fighting against the health of Texans and withholding desperately needed supplies and personal protective equipment in favor of a procedure that they refer to as a ‘choice,'" he tweeted Wednesday night. "My office will tirelessly defend Governor Abbott’s Order to ensure that necessary supplies reach the medical professionals combating this national health crisis."
Paxton's interpretation of the governor's order would only allow abortions "medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother."
A group of pro-life leaders had sent a letter to the federal Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday, opposing the promotion of abortion during the coronavirus pandemic. It also called on "all public health officials" to oppose efforts to allow abortion providers to use protective gear or receive coronavirus response funds, among other things.
"While surgery centers postpone elective and diagnostic procedures, abortion centers are churning out surgical and chemical abortions and putting women, especially the poor, at risk," the letter reads. "Their continued operation depletes sorely needed personal protective equipment and leads to complications that will further overwhelm already overextended emergency rooms. The abortion industry is compounding one crisis with another. Therefore, we urge public officials to use their broad emergency authority to safeguard against the extreme abortion agenda."
The Planned Parenthood suit argues that Abbott's order, and Paxton's interpretation of it, violate patients' right to "substantive due process" under the 14th Amendment, a legal catch-all involving states' authority to regulate peoples' actions, particularly those – like abortion – that the Supreme Court has said are constitutionally protected.
It also says the order violates abortion providers' 14th Amendment's equal protection clause by "singling abortion providers and their patients out for differential treatment from providers of other medical services and their patients."
The suit also points out that the surgical abortions do not require much PPE and abortion by medication – which Paxton has included in his interpretation of the ban – requires none. Because of that, the suit argues, the Texas order is aimed more at stopping abortion than at conserving resources.
"If the Executive Order is enforced, as interpreted by the Attorney General (contrary to its plain language), to apply to both procedural abortion and medication abortion, it effectively bans abortion in Texas for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency," the suit says.
But it also argues that surgical abortion should be allowed because medication abortion is not effective "after ten weeks of pregnancy."
The suit asks the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas for a restraining order and injunctions to allow Texas abortion providers to immediately continue performing abortions. It also asks that the court eventually rule that Abbott's executive order and Paxton's interpretation of it are unconstitutional.
President Trump granted Texas' request for a major disaster declaration on Wednesday, opening the door for extra federal funding to fight the coronavirus in the state.
Fox News' Sam Dorman contributed to this report.