A federal appeals court panel ruled that medication abortions, in which women take pills to terminate a pregnancy, can be provided in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ruling Monday from a three-judge panel of the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals was among several developments in Republican-led states where governors have sought to prohibit almost all abortions by classifying them as elective procedures that should be put off during the virus outbreak.
Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order last month that bars non-essential medical procedures so that health resources can go to treating coronavirus patients. Texas' Republican attorney general has said that providing abortions other than for an immediate medical emergency would violate the order.
But a three-judge panel of the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals said that medication abortions can go forward. In a concurrence, Judge James L. Dennis wrote that Texas' move to ban medication abortions "is a strong indication that the enforcement is pretextual and does not bear a 'real or substantial relation' to the public health crisis we are experiencing."
A federal judge on Tuesday also blocked Arkansas' order preventing the state's only surgical abortion clinic from performing the procedure during the pandemic.
The state had ordered Little Rock Family Planning Services to stop performing abortions unless it was necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.
Also Monday, a 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld a lower-court order that overturned an Oklahoma ban.
The 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals also declined to hear an appeal by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost seeking to reverse a judge's temporary restraining order allowing abortion facilities in the state to continue performing surgical abortions.
In Louisiana, an abortion provider in Shreveport filed a federal lawsuit to block any state attempts to ban abortions during the pandemic. June Medical Group, which operates the Hope clinic, said abortions are still currently being done
The Shreveport clinic is at the center of a separate case currently at the Supreme Court over whether doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
And in Tennessee, abortion providers filed an emergency motion in federal court seeking an order that would allow them to continue providing surgical abortions.
Over the weekend, Texas abortion clinics asked the Supreme Court to step in to allow medication abortions.
Such an abortion involves taking one pill at a clinic, then taking a second pill 24 to 48 hours later, typically at home. Clinics have argued that medication abortions do not require personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and gowns that might be needed for coronavirus patients.
Texas permits medication abortions during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
"Now it's time for Gov. Abbott to end his exploitation of this pandemic to ban all abortion access," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "None of it is medically justified, all of it is unconstitutional, and women are being thrown into a state of fear and uncertainty."
Attorney General Ken Paxton's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the court's ruling.
Texas Alliance for Life issued a written statement calling on abortion providers to follow the original order to free up doctors and supplies.
"The most recent order fails to recognize the danger abortion providers pose to the public by refusing to comply with Governor Abbott's executive order in the same way other providers of non-immediately medically necessary surgeries and procedures have done," said Texas Alliance for Life Executive Director Joe Pojman.