A federal judge said on Easter Sunday that the state of Alabama cannot move to limit abortion procedures through measures intended to focus medical resources on fighting coronavirus.
Granting a preliminary injunction on Sunday, April 12, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote that “efforts to combat COVID-19 do not outweigh the lasting harm imposed by the denial of an individual’s right to terminate her pregnancy, by an undue burden or increase in risk on patients imposed by a delayed procedure, or by the cloud of unwarranted prosecution against providers.”
The defendants in this case were Alabama’s state health officer Scott Harris and Attorney General Steve Marshall. The case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of Dr. Yashica Robinson. Robinson is an abortion doctor based in Huntsville, AL.
Several other states, including Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alaska, Arkansas, and Texas, have attempted to classify elective abortions as non-essential procedures during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Many states have suspended medical procedures deemed non-emergency or non-essential in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus among healthcare professionals and to free up medical resources and hospital capacity.
On March 19. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) issued a statewide order which stopped all medical procedures except for emergencies or those needed to “avoid serious harm from an underlying condition or disease, or necessary as part of a patient’s ongoing and active treatment.”
The order was later expanded to a statewide stay-at-home order on April 3.
The suit was filed after Alabama health officials refused to clarify that abortion clinics would be permitted to stay open under the new directives. The injunction means that abortion will remain available in Alabama.
Federal courts have issued a variety of decisions regarding a state’s ability to restrict abortions due to COVID-19. On April 7, a three-judge panel for the Fifth Circuit Court ruled in a 2-1 decision that Texas has the authority to halt elective abortions as non-essential medical procedures during a public health emergency. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued that order on March 22.
Citing precedent, the court said that “the pressure of great dangers” constitutional law “allows the state to restrict, for example, one’s right to peaceably assemble, to publicly worship, to travel, and even to leave one’s home. The right to abortion is no exception.”
On March 31, the court had ruled in the state’s favor, putting a temporary stay on a lower court’s decision that halted Texas’ order from going into effect, and considering the matter further.
Other judges ruled the opposite for Ohio and Oklahoma.
On April 6, separate courts both ruled that Ohio and Oklahoma cannot stop abortion clinics from operating due to COVID-19.
Ohio had ordered a halt on surgical abortions as “non-essential” medical procedures during the pandemic, before a district court put a temporary restraining order on that policy on March 30.
On April 6, the Sixth Circuit declined the state’s appeal of the decision, saying it lacked jurisdiction, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
That same day, Federal Judge Charles Goodwin of the Western District of Oklahoma issued a temporary restraining order on the state’s act to stop non-emergency abortions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the state can take lawful “emergency measures” during the new coronavirus crisis, Judge Goodwin wrote, such actions should not be “a plain, palpable invasion of rights,” including of “access to abortion.”
He concluded that the state “acted in an ‘unreasonable,’ ‘arbitrary,’ and ‘oppressive’ way—and imposed an ‘undue burden’ on abortion access—in imposing requirements that effectively deny a right of access to abortion.”
Regarding its ban on medication abortions, Goodwin said its “minor” contribution to public health is “outweighed by the intrusion on Fourteenth Amendment rights.”