Court allows Arkansas ban on surgical abortions due to virus

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Wednesday allowed Arkansas to ban most surgical abortions during the coronavirus pandemic.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dissolved a judge’s temporary restraining order that allowedsurgical abortions to continue after the Arkansas Department of Health told the state’s only surgical abortion clinic to stop performingthe procedure unless it was needed to protect the life or health of the mother.

The appeals court’s ruling said the Health Department’s “directive is a legally valid response to the circumstances confronted by the Governor and state health officials.”

The state said Little Rock Family Planning Services violated an order requiring health providers to reschedule elective procedures that could be safely postponed. Other states have used similar orders to restrict abortions during the pandemic. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday said the state would ease its limits on elective surgeries starting Monday, though it was not immediately clear whether the move would allow surgical abortions to resume at the clinic.

The state issued the order halting surgical abortions after initially encouragingthe clinic to stop performing the procedure for out-of-state patients. Arkansas has reported at least 2,392 coronavirus cases and 42 deaths. The number of infections is likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

The state’s order did not prohibition medication abortions that are still administered by Little Rock Family Planning and another clinic operated by Planned Parenthood.

“All medically unnecessary surgeries must be postponed, and this decision affirms that surgical abortions do not get special treatment,” Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement.

Attorneys for Little Rock Family Planning Services on Wednesday night asked a federal judge to prevent the ban from being enforced on patients who will soon be past the legal limit for when abortions can performed in Arkansas. The state currently bans abortion 20 weeks into a woman’s pregnancy, and the filing said the clinic on Thursday will have to turn away at least two patients about to pass that threshold.

“For the health and safety of all Arkansans, state officials need to focus on protecting people from the pandemic, not using the virus as an excuse to advance their own extremist political agendas,” Holly Dickson, legal director of interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which represents the clinic, said.

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