Judge overturns ban on abortions in Tennessee during Covid-19 crisis | US news


A federal judge has barred the state of Tennessee from preventing abortions during a temporary ban on non-essential medical procedures to slow the spread of Covid-19.

US district judge, Bernard Friedman, said the defendants didn’t show that any appreciable amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) would be saved if the ban was applied to abortions.

What is the Louisiana law?

The case from Louisiana is called June Medical Services v Russo. It centers around a state law which requires doctors who perform abortions to have “admitting privileges” at a local hospital. Admitting privileges are usually granted to a hospital’s staff doctors, and allow them to admit a patient for treatment.

Abortion rights advocates argue this is an attempt to place an insurmountable barrier in the way of abortion clinics seeking to lawfully operate, and that such requirements will ultimately shut them down. Many hospitals are wary of links to abortion doctors. In other cases, abortion clinics may be located too far from hospitals to comply with the law.

The supreme court heard a nearly identical case from Texas in 2016, called Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt. The court found that laws requiring admitting privileges do not confer medical benefits to women, and that they place a “substantial obstacle” for women who seek abortions.

Could the court overturn Roe v Wade?

Yes, although it is unlikely to do so outright. However, even if abortion remains legal, such requirements as called for in the Louisiana law could lead to the closure of many clinics in states where such laws exist. Louisiana, for example, could be left with just one clinic.

The court’s choice to hear this case at all is already incredibly rare. The supreme court hardly ever hears cases similar to recent rulings, and this Louisiana law is almost identical to a law overturned just three years ago.

What’s the significance of the supreme court under Trump?

President Trump appointed two socially conservative jurists to the court: Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Importantly, Kavanaugh replaced a justice who was known as a “swing vote”, and supportive of Roe v Wade. This case is the first test of the court on abortion with its new, more conservative make-up. This means anti-abortion groups could get a more sympathetic hearing.

Are abortion rights unpopular in America?

No. Polls consistently show a majority of Americans support the right to an abortion.

So who is pushing this?

The anti-abortion movement in America is organized, motivated and well funded. It has also been emboldened by the rhetoric of Donald Trump, who sees white evangelical Christians as a core part of his base.

The anti-abortion movement often passes multiple, similar laws that push constitutional boundaries, in an effort to provoke favorable decisions from federal courts.

If Roe v Wade is overturned as many as 22 states stand ready to ban abortion.

In a hearing by phone on Friday, attorneys representing several state abortion clinics argued that Tennessee women would face immediate harm if the ban on abortions was not lifted.

Alex Rieger, arguing for the Tennessee attorney general’s office, said abortions were not being singled out but treated like any other procedure that was not necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury. The Tennessee governor, Bill Lee, issued an emergency order on 8 April banning those procedures for three weeks.

The aim of the ban was to preserve the limited supply of PPE for doctors fighting Covid-19 and to help prevent the community spread of the disease by limiting patient-provider interactions, Rieger said. The two sides disagreed over whether halting abortions would help or hinder that goal.

Several other states are grappling with similar issues. Judges in the past week have ruled to allow abortions to continue in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Ohio and Texas.

Genevieve Scott, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, argued that all pregnant women needed care. About one in five pregnant women require hospital visits before labour, and 15-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriages. Even women without problems require prenatal care and tests. All of that requires providers to use PPE and interact with patients, Scott said.

Rieger argued that most of what Scott described would take place a couple of months down the road and that “every piece of PPE we use now is a piece that is not available when this disease reaches its peak.”

Scott disputed that idea, saying the needs were immediate. She also noted that there was no guarantee the executive order would not be extended.

“Nothing in their arguments today suggests they really believe that in three weeks the issue will be resolved,” she said.

Abortion clinics have already turned away dozens of patients, Scott said, adding that the longer an abortion was delayed, the greater chance of complications. Also, the delay could prevent some women from having an abortion altogether by pushing them past 20 weeks gestation, after which abortions are generally not available in Tennessee.

Rieger asserted that Tennessee has the power to restrict abortions in a public health emergency, citing a 1905 US supreme court case in which the court held that requiring citizens to be vaccinated for smallpox was a legitimate exercise of the state’s police powers to protect the health and safety of its citizens.

He suggested abortion providers didn’t want to play by the rules that everyone else has to abide by.

“They want abortion to carry on in Tennessee as if Covid had never happened,” Rieger said. “Tennesseans are making extraordinary sacrifices. Abortion providers don’t want to sacrifice.”

Scott argued that abortion had been recognised as a constitutional right. She added medical groups, including the College of Surgeons, which the state relied upon in crafting its executive order, recognised that abortion was essential care that should not be delayed.

“The state is singling out abortion as the only essential care excluded by the executive order,” she said.

Tennessee’s Republican governor often speaks of his Christian faith and has said he wants to enact some of the strictest abortion laws in the nation, including banning women from undergoing the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

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