A federal appeals court on Monday blocked Texas from enforcing a ban on medication-induced abortions as part of the state’s curbs on certain medical procedures during the coronavirus pandemic.
As a result of fast-moving litigation over Texas’ abortion restrictions, women seeking to terminate an unwanted pregnancy may do so through the use of medicine, but only women nearing their 22nd week of pregnancy may undergo a surgical abortion.
In its Monday ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said it sided against Texas because it was unclear if the state’s public health order halting non-essential medical procedures applied to medication-induced abortions.
“[Abortion providers] argue that medication abortions are not covered by [the order] because neither dispensing medication nor ancillary diagnostic elements, such as a physical examination or ultrasound, qualify as ‘procedures,’” the three-judge panel wrote.
“Given the ambiguity in the record, we conclude on the briefing and record before us that [Texas officials] have not made the requisite strong showing [necessary for] relief,” the panel said.
The panel’s decision partially reinstates a lower court ruling that limited the Texas health order’s impact on abortions.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) last month banned medical providers from performing nonessential surgeries and procedures during the pandemic. The order did not specify which procedures were subject to the order, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) later said it applied to abortions.
Texas is among several Republican-led states to restrict abortion amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying the move is necessary to conserve hospital resources.
A series of sharp disagreements have emerged in recent weeks between a federal district court in Texas and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals amid ongoing litigation over the legal parameters of the Texas abortion restriction.
In general, the Supreme Court’s constitutional test for abortion restrictions involves weighing the burden on a woman’s access to abortion against the medical benefits of the measure under legal review.
But the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has faulted the district court for failing to apply that legal test in harmony with a landmark 1905 Supreme Court decision that constitutional rights can be lawfully restricted when emergency public health measures are in place.