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Abortion-rights groups sue Texas over abortion ban amid coronavirus outbreak

A coalition of abortion-rights advocates is suing Texas over the state's directive to ban nearly all abortion services as the country grapples with the coronavirus outbreak. The groups are asking for the court to issue an immediate temporary restraining order to block the ban from taking effect. Already, clinics that provide abortion in the state have turned away patients seeking the procedure because of the order.

The complaint, filed in the Western District of Texas,  is a joint effort from the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Lawyering Project. In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday afternoon, attorneys wrote that Texas's ban was unconstitutional and deprives people "of their fundamental right to determine when and whether to have a child or to add to their existing families."

 On Monday, Texas's Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered that all abortions "not medically necessary to preserve the life or health" of the patient must be temporarily halted as part of the state's directive to suspend non-essential procedures in order to preserve much-needed resources to fight the growing COVID-19 pandemic. In Ohio, Attorney General Dave Yost has said the state Health Department's ban on all "non-essential" surgeries applies to abortion services, though clinics in the state say they are continuing to provide the procedure and are in compliance with the order. In Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves has promised the same, vowing to levy "whatever action we need to to protect the not only the lives of unborn children, but also the lives of anyone who may contract this particular virus."

"This [ban] will place lives in jeopardy," said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "This is a distraction that Americans, including patients we serve in communities nationwide, cannot afford."

Texas's move to ban abortion has pushed people seeking the procedure into a panic. CBS News spoke with a handful of women in the state seeking the procedure, concerned about their options. Several were in the process of making plans to drive to neighboring states, despite the stay-at-home order. One took matters into her own hands, purchasing abortion pills online, even though that's not legal in Texas.

Texas and Ohio have both imposed strict laws that limit abortion access. Ohio was one of the first to pass a so-called "fetal heartbeat ban," a law, not currently in effect, that prohibits abortion after embryonic activity can be detected, something that typically happens five to six weeks in a person's pregnancy and often before a patient knows they're pregnant. 

Texas is home to one of the strictest gestational abortion limitations allowed to go into effect: a ban on the procedure 20 weeks post-fertilization, or 22 weeks after a patient's last menstrual cycle unless the patient's life was in jeopardy, they faced "severely compromised physical health," or the fetus faced "lethal anomaly," according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights research organization.

Abortion rights advocates worry other states may follow Texas and Ohio's lead. On Tuesday, 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." 

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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