TWO DAYS after abortion providers in Texas asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take emergency action concerning abortion access in Texas, the federal appeals court that had allowed restrictions on abortion to take effect backed down. The surprise move spares the Supreme Court — at least for the moment — from having to decide this volatile issue at a fraught time, and it spares the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit the possibility of an embarrassing reversal. Sadly, though, women in Texas have not been spared. They suffered — and still face — hardship and uncertainty as Texas politicians cruelly exploit the novel coronavirus pandemic to try to ban access to abortions.

A furious legal battle has been waged in the federal courts in the weeks since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an executive order banning most abortions as “non-essential” medical procedures during the pandemic emergency. Abortion providers — represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Lawyering Project and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America — challenged the order and won temporary restraining orders from a federal judge that were twice stayed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision Monday night by the appeals court restored access to medication abortion, a two-pill process that accounts for a significant portion of abortions in Texas. But the only other abortion procedures that remain available are for patients with a gestational age that would exceed the state’s legal limit for abortion by April 22 (one day after Gov. Abbott’s executive order is set to expire).

The legal back-and-forth has caused fear, confusion and other real hardships. Court affidavits detail the damage. A 24-year-old college student wrote about having just lost her job waiting tables because of the pandemic when she found out she was pregnant. Because of the governor’s order, her appointment to get a medical abortion was canceled and she ended up driving with a friend to Denver and back. She wrote about how she was forced to travel during a pandemic: “to drive across the country, to stop at dirty gas stations, to stay in an unfamiliar home, just to get health care, I feel like Texas put me, and my best friend, in danger.” A clinic administrator told of a woman with a diagnosis of a lethal fetal anomaly without the means to travel out of state. A lawyer representing minors needing judicial approval for an abortion said one of his clients already has a child and would be kicked out of her home if her mother knew she was pregnant; her appointment was twice canceled.

Texas officials claim the restrictions on abortion are necessary to preserve resources and personnel in the fight against covid-19. But most states are managing to fight the virus without impinging on women’s constitutional rights. That’s because abortion is a relatively safe procedure that is generally not done in hospitals and does not require extensive personal protective equipment.

Instead of expending time and resources on an unscrupulous campaign to ban abortion, officials in Texas should be focusing on strategies that might actually help in the fight against the coronavirus.

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