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ACLU sues Arkansas to keep abortion available amid coronavirus outbreak

Arkansas is the latest state to face a legal battle over its suspension of abortion services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday asked a district court to block Arkansas' ban on abortion services after the state's Department of Health issued a cease and desist letter to one of the state's two abortion providers. In the letter, the agency said the clinic was in violation of Arkansas' temporary suspension of non-essential medical procedures by offering abortion that were "not immediately medically necessary to save the life or health of the patient."

While state officials said the directive is designed to preserve medical resources for the fight against the coronavirus, abortion rights groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, see the measure as the newest way for politicians to restrict abortion access.

"Arkansas politicians have been trying to restrict and ban access to abortion for years," Holly Dickson, interim executive director and legal director at the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement. "This latest orchestrated attack has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with politicians using the pandemic to violate the constitution and further their extreme agenda."

Six states now face legal challenges after including abortion services in directives suspending "non-essential" medical procedures amid the pandemic. In Texas, providers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the state's temporary ban on nearly all abortions. It's the first time the procedure hasn't been available in nearly 50 years when Roe v Wade legalized abortion.

Little Rock Family Planning Services is the state's only clinic that offers surgical abortions, a catch-all phrase for any pregnancy termination method not administered by pill. The next-closest surgical abortion provider is in Shreveport, Alabama — a 600-mile round trip, according to court documents.

"Many of Little Rock Family Planned Services' patients will not even be able to make the trip and will instead be forced to carry to term against their will or seek to terminate their pregnancy outside the medical system," attorneys wrote in Monday's filing.

This week, Little Rock has 20 patients scheduled for surgical abortion, according to court documents. If the ban is allowed to continue, those patients would need to wait until the virus is over or travel to a neighboring state to terminate their pregnancy. Arkansas is one of the only states not to have a state-at-home order in place.

An email to the Arkansas Attorney General's Office was not immediately returned.

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