U.S. appeals court lets Texas curb medication abortions during pandemic

By Andrew Chung

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Monday allowed Texas to enforce curbs on medication-induced abortions as part of the Republican-governed state’s restrictions aimed at postponing medical procedures not deemed urgent during the coronavirus pandemic.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a federal judge’s order blocking the state from applying restrictions to abortions induced through medication, in the early stages of a pregnancy. About half of all abortions in the state are performed through medication, which involves taking two pills by mouth.

The judge had also prevented the state from banning surgical abortions for women who would be past the legal limit for the procedure by the time the coronavirus-related emergency order is set to expire, at the end of the day on Tuesday. The 5th Circuit allowed that portion of the judge’s order to remain in effect.

Texas is one of several conservative states that have tried to impose limits on abortion during the pandemic, saying they are seeking to ensure that medical resources including protective equipment are available to help healthcare facilities cope with people with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

Abortion rights advocates have accused the states of political opportunism by using the pandemic to advance anti-abortion policies.

The abortion providers – including Whole Woman’s Health and Planned Parenthood – sued Texas on March 25, calling the restrictions a violation of the right to abortion under the U.S. Constitution as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The abortion providers said medication abortion should not be halted because it is not a procedure at all and does not require the use of protective equipment.

The state disputed that contention, saying that medication abortion is a procedure and that protective equipment is used as part of the physical exams and follow-up exams or if there are complications requiring an emergency room visit.

In Monday’s ruling, the 5th Circuit said that in blocking the state’s actions to postpone abortions during the pandemic, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin usurped the state’s authority “to craft emergency public health measures.”

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump-backed ‘conscience’ rule for healthcare workers voided by U.S. judge

Trump-backed ‘conscience’ rule for healthcare workers voided by U.S. judge
By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday voided a White House-backed rule that would have made it easier for doctors and nurses to avoid performing abortions on religious or moral grounds.

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer in Manhattan said the so-called “conscience” rule was unconstitutionally coercive, by letting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) withhold billions of dollars of federal funding from healthcare providers unless they complied.

“Wherever the outermost line where persuasion gives way to coercion lies, the threat to pull all HHS funding here crosses it,” Engelmayer wrote in a 147-page decision.

The judge also said the rule conflicted with federal laws governing the obligations of employers to accommodate workers’ religious objections, and hospitals to provide emergency treatment to patients who could not afford it.

Engelmayer’s decision covered a lawsuit by New York state and 22 other states and municipalities, as well as two lawsuits by Planned Parenthood and other healthcare providers.

HHS and the U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The rule was scheduled to take effect on Nov. 22.

U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, has made expanding religious liberty a priority, and the conscience rule has drawn support from abortion opponents.

Neither the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James nor Planned Parenthood immediately responded to requests for comment.

The states and municipalities have said the rule could undermine their ability to provide effective healthcare, and upset their efforts to accommodate workers’ beliefs while ensuring that hospitals and other businesses treated patients effectively.

Opponents of the rule have also said it could deprive gay, transgender and other patients of needed healthcare because providers might be deemed less worthy of treatment.

HHS countered that the rule would help enforce “conscience protection” laws that have been on the books for decades.

Engelmayer said these provisions “recognize and protect undeniably important rights,” but the government’s rulemaking “was sufficiently shot through with glaring legal defects.”

The state and municipal plaintiffs are led by Democrats or often lean Democratic.

They also include New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.; the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin; and Cook County, Illinois.

The states’ case is New York et al v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 19-04676.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)

Republican Alabama governor mulling nation’s strictest abortion law

The U.S. Flag and Alabama State Flag fly over the Alabama Governor's Mansion as the state Senate votes on the strictest anti-abortion bill in the United States at the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

(Reuters) – Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on Wednesday was mulling whether to sign the United States’ strictest abortion law, part of a multistate effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider women’s constitutional right to abortion.

The state’s Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would outlaw nearly all abortions, including in the cases of pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest, allowing exceptions only to protect the mother’s health.

The Republican governor is a strong opponent of abortion but has so far withheld comment on whether she would sign the bill.

If Ivey signs the bill, the law would take effect six months later. But it is certain to face legal challenge from abortion rights groups, which have vowed to sue.

Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced this year in 16 states, four of whose governors have signed bills banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected.

The Alabama bill goes further, banning abortions at any time. Those performing abortions would be committing a felony, punishable by 10 to 99 years in prison. A woman who receives an abortion would not be held criminally liable.

The Senate defeated a Democratic amendment that would have allowed legal abortions for women and girls impregnated by rape or incest.

Anti-abortion advocates know any laws they pass are certain to be challenged. Courts this year have blocked a restrictive Kentucky law and another in Iowa passed last year.

But supporters of the Alabama ban said the right to life of the fetus transcends other rights, an idea they would like tested at the Supreme Court.

The high court, now with a majority of conservative justices after Republican President Donald Trump appointed two, could possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision establishing a woman’s right to an abortion.

Just this year, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have outlawed abortion after a doctor can detect an embryonic heartbeat.

Opponents call the “heartbeat” legislation a virtual ban because embryonic cardiac activity can be detected as early as six weeks, before a woman may be aware she is pregnant.

The National Organization for Women denounced Alabama’s ban as unconstitutional.

Actress and activist Alyssa Milano has called for a sex strike under the social media hashtag #SexStrike in response to the campaigns against abortion rights, urging women to refuse sex with men “until we get bodily autonomy back.”

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Judge rules for Trump administration in suit over family-planning program shift

FILE PHOTO: Healthcare activists with Planned Parenthood and the Center for American Progress protest in opposition to the Senate Republican healthcare bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A federal judge ruled on Monday against birth control organizations that sought to block the Trump administration from shifting a federal family-planning grant program toward prioritizing groups that are faith-based and counsel abstinence.

Three planned Parenthood organizations along with the National Family Planning Reproductive Health Association filed lawsuits, which were later combined, in May challenging guidelines the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued in February.

Those guidelines set forth new criteria for how the department under Republican President Donald Trump would assess applications for grants under the Title X family planning program. The grants are expected to total $260 million.

The organizations objected to the criteria’s focus on abstinence, easier access to primary health care, increasing family participation and cooperation with faith-based organizations, according to the ruling.

The organizations argued that the changes require a notice and comment rule-making process, violate the Title X law and were “arbitrary and capricious.”

United States District Court Judge Trevor McFadden, who was appointed by Trump in 2017, said in his ruling that “courts cannot review substantive objections to a non-final agency action, nor can they require formal rulemaking for a change in agency procedure.”

McFadden also said that if he could rule on the merits of the case, the government’s changes align with program’s commitment to support “voluntary family projects … offering a broad range of acceptable and effective family planning methods and services.”

Vice President Mike Pence, a former Indiana governor and strident opponent of abortion, has pushed Congress to defund Planned Parenthood. The non-profit’s clinics provide contraception, health screenings and abortions.

“The Trump-Pence administration is trying to impose its ideology on people – no matter how many it hurts,” Dawn Laguens, Executive Vice President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement on Monday, adding that the ruling could effect the health care of four million people.

Planned Parenthood health centers serve more than 40 percent of patients receiving care subsidized by Title X.

HHS could not be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

Texas governor signs bill to limit insurance coverage for abortions

FILE PHOTO: The Texas capitol building, crafted from pink granite, is seen in Austin, Texas September 19, 2012. REUTERS/Julia Robinson/File Photo

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – The Republican governor of Texas signed into law on Tuesday a measure that will restrict insurance coverage for abortions, compelling women to buy a supplemental plan if they want coverage for the procedure.

Governor Greg Abbott said the measure known as House Bill 214 would protect abortion opponents from subsidizing the procedure. Democratic critics decried it as forcing people to buy “rape insurance.”

Texas, the most-populous Republican-controlled state, has been at the forefront in enacting abortion restrictions, with many of its measures followed by other socially conservative states. But when HB 214 goes into law on Dec. 1, Texas will be the 11th state to restrict abortion coverage in private insurance plans written in the state.

“As a firm believer in Texas values, I am proud to sign legislation that ensures no Texan is ever required to pay for a procedure that ends the life of an unborn child,” Abbott said in a statement.

The Republican sponsor of a Senate bill on abortion insurance restriction, Brandon Creighton, has told local media supplemental coverage would cost $12 to $80 a year.

House Bill 214, which passed both chambers this month, mostly on a party-line vote, does not offer exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Abortion rights groups said they plan a court fight to prevent it from becoming law.

“By signing HB 214 into law, Governor Abbott has told women and parents they must pay extra for what is tantamount to ‘rape insurance,'” Democratic Representative Chris Turner, who opposed the bill, said on Tuesday.

There are 25 states with restrictions on abortion coverage in plans set up by state exchanges as part of the Affordable Care Act under former Democratic President Barack Obama, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks such legislation.

Also on Tuesday, Abbott signed another measure that expands reporting requirements for complications arising from abortions.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Sandra Maler)

Texas bill restricting insurance coverage for abortions nears approval

Texas bill restricting insurance coverage for abortions nears approval

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – A Texas bill that would restrict insurance coverage for abortions was approved by the state’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday, a move critics called cruel and damaging to women’s health.

The House measure would ban insurance coverage for abortions and require women who wanted coverage to purchase a supplemental plan for an abortion, the latest effort by the most-populous Republican-controlled state to place restrictions on the procedure.

If enacted, the bill would take effect on Dec. 1 and make Texas the 11th state to restrict abortion coverage in private insurance plans written in the state.

The Republican-dominated Senate has passed a similar bill, and Republican Governor Greg Abbott has shown support for the measures.

The bill’s backers say it would protect abortion opponents from subsidizing the procedure. A Democratic critic decried it as forcing people to buy “rape insurance.”

“It’s a question of economic freedom and freedom in general,” Republican Representative John Smithee, the bill’s sponsor, said in House debate on Tuesday ahead of the bill receiving preliminary approval.

The Republican sponsor of the Senate bill, Brandon Creighton, has told local media supplemental coverage would cost $12 to $80 a year

House Bill 214, which passed mostly on a party-line vote, does not offer exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Abortion rights groups are likely fight the measure in court if enacted.

“Women and parents will be faced with the horrific decision of having to purchase ‘rape insurance’ to cover them if they are victimized,” Democratic Representative Chris Turner said in a statement. “This is not only ridiculous, but it is cruel.”

Idaho, Kansas and Oklahoma are among the 10 other states that make abortion coverage a supplement on private plans. There are 25 states with restrictions on abortion coverage in plans set up by state exchanges as part of the Affordable Care Act under former Democratic President Barack Obama, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks such legislation.

“It is surprising that Texas has not done this before,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager for Guttmacher.

The insurance measure is one of several bills concerning abortion before Texas lawmakers in a special session that runs through next week.

The Senate has already approved bills that include requiring physicians to improve notification of complications that occur during abortions and another that prohibits local governments from having contracts with abortion providers and their affiliates.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)