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Anti-abortion rights groups urge HHS to ban abortion amid coronavirus outbreak

A coalition of more than 30 anti-abortion rights activists called for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to temporarily ban most abortion services amid the coronavirus outbreak, urging HHS Secretary Alex Azar to force clinics who provide the procedure to "cease operations."

The letter, sent to the department on Tuesday, asks HHS to force organizations that offer the procedure, like Planned Parenthood, to suspend abortion services "and join healthcare providers in donating their PPE [personal protective equipment] and other equipment to coronavirus response." The groups, which include Susan B. Anthony List, National Right to Life, and Heritage Action, also requested that telemedicine as a way for patients to receive medication abortion not be expanded amid the outbreak.

The request comes after two states — Texas and Ohio — ordered temporary bans on abortion in their own states, interpreting halts on "non-essential" medical procedures to include pregnancy termination. In Ohio, the attorney general's office sent cease-and-desist letters to two of the state's clinics that provide abortion, and clarified to CBS News that abortion was included in the state's temporary suspension of "non-essential" medical procedures. 

In Texas, nearly all abortions have been banned, with the exception of those that are "medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother," according to a press release from the state attorney general's office. Those in violation will face "penalties of up to $1,000 or 180 days of jail time."

In both Ohio and Texas, the abortion bans are part of broader efforts to preserve much-needed medical resources amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Medical professional groups, as well as abortion-rights activists, have resisted the orders, calling the procedure an essential component of reproductive health care. In Ohio, clinics that provide abortion were continuing to offer those services, but at the time of publication it was unclear whether the procedure had been halted in Texas.

"Abortion is an essential and time-sensitive medical procedure," said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement shared with CBS News. "Delays or additional barriers to care can make it more difficult or even impossible for some patients to access safe, legal abortion. While we continue to provide critical care during this pandemic and work with our partner health care providers, we must still ensure that patients can access the services they need."

Other states, like Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, have expressly noted that their directives suspending "non-essential" surgical procedures do not include abortion services.

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