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Ohio abortion clinics ordered to stop procedures due to coronavirus

All of Ohio's abortion clinics have been ordered to stop providing the procedure as the state clamps down on medical services to preserve protective gear amid the growing coronavirus outbreak. The order, if enforced, would make abortion even more difficult to obtain in a state that's been aggressively attempting to limit and restrict the procedure. 

On Friday, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sent letters to two facilities that provide abortion — Women's Med Center in Dayton and Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio's Cincinnati Surgery Center — ordering them to stop providing any services, like abortion, that require the use of personal protective equipment, said Bethany McCorkle, a spokesperson for the Ohio Attorney General's office, in an email to CBS News Saturday morning.

"You and your facility are ordered to immediately stop performing non-essential and elective surgical abortions. Non-essential surgical abortions are those that can be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of a patient," Yost wrote in the letter, which was shared with CBS News.

"If you or your facility do not immediately stop performing non-essential or elective surgical abortions in compliance with the [health director's] order, the Department of Health will take all appropriate measures."

McCorkle said the order applies to all of Ohio's abortion providers. It was not immediately clear whether or not clinics could continue providing medication abortion. If a clinic uses personal protective equipment to administer the procedure, the order would apply, McCorkle said. According to the United States Department of Labor, personal protective equipment can include, "gloves, safety glasses and shoes, earplugs or muffs, hard hats, respirators, or coveralls, vests and full body suits."

McCorkle clarified that the clinics would be allowed to stay open for other services.

Yost's letters ask the facilities to comply with an order issued by the Ohio Department of Health that bans all "non-essential and elective surgeries" in an attempt to preserve protective gear for medical personal fighting on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak. Across the country, health care workers have warned of medical-equipment shortages, potentially exposing them to coronavirus as they fight the outbreak.

The health department's order, issued on Wednesday, does not call out whether abortion services would be considered "non-essential" or "elective."

Whether abortion is considered "essential" will ultimately determine whether the procedure can continue in Ohio amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Freda Levenson, the legal director at the ACLU of Ohio, said abortion should fall into this category.

"We are in an unprecedented time of crisis, and everyone needs to ensure that people's health and safety is protected," Levenson said in a statement provided to CBS News on Saturday. "But the government should not use this crisis as an excuse to target abortion clinics and attempt to take away the ability of Ohioans to access abortion, which is time-sensitive and essential health care."

Upon receiving the Attorney General's letter, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region responded, clarifying that the clinic was in compliance with the Health Department's order, which allows Planned Parenthood to "still continue providing essential procedures, including surgical abortion, and our health centers continue to offer other health care services that our patients depend on. Our doors remain open for this care," said Iris E. Harvey and Kersha Deibel, the respective heads of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio and Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region, in a joint statement provided to CBS News on Saturday.

A group of leading organizations that represent physicians in the reproductive health field, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, reiterated that abortion should be considered an essential health service in a joint statement issued Wednesday:

"Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care. It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible. The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person's life, health, and well-being."

In Ohio, access to abortion is already limited, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research organization. Patients seeking the procedure must receive in-person, state-directed counseling, designed to discourage the person from having an abortion. After that, patients are required to wait at least 24 hours before they're able to undergo the procedure, requiring two separate trips to the clinic. In Ohio, abortion is prohibited after 20 weeks into a person's pregnancy.

Last year, Ohio was also among six states to pass a so-called "heartbeat ban," a law that prohibits patients from receiving an abortion after doctors can detect embryonic cardiac activity, something that happens about five or six weeks into a person's pregnancy. Often, that's before a person knows they're pregnant. The law, which has been temporarily blocked from going into effect, provides no exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

When the legislation was signed in law in April 2019, Yost said, "Sometimes, the evolution of the law requires bold steps."

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