Arkansas orders clinic to halt abortions during pandemic

LITTLE ROCK, Ark — Arkansas’ only surgical abortion clinic must stop performing the procedure during the coronavirus pandemic except to protect the life or health of the mother, the state Department of Health said Friday.

The agency told the Little Rock Family Planning Services clinic in a letter that it had violated an order preventing elective surgeries during the public health crisis. The April 3 directive orders health providers to reschedule procedures that can be safely postponed.

“That prohibition applies to surgical abortions that are not immediately necessary to protect the life or health of the patient,” the department said.

Before Friday, the agency stopped short of saying whether its order banned abortions. Other states, including neighboring Texas and Oklahoma, have moved to ban or restrict the procedure. A spokeswoman said the Health Department hasn’t sent a similar letter to Planned Parenthood, which administers abortion-inducing medication at its Little Rock clinic but does not perform surgical abortions.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which represents the Little Rock Family Planning Services clinic, said it was reviewing the letter and was considering all options including a legal challenge.

“Effectively combating the spread of COVID-19 requires a government response that is grounded in science and public health, not politics,” Holly Dickson, the interim executive director and legal director of ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement. “You can’t press pause on a pregnancy, even during a pandemic, and abortion is essential, time-sensitive health care that cannot be postponed.”

The state’s health secretary on Thursday encouraged  the clinic to stop seeing out-of-state patients. In Friday’s letter, the department said any further violations of its order would result in the suspension of the clinic’s license.

“The risk was particularly high because a high proportion of those cases were coming from out of state … bringing that risk of transmission with them from other states with a higher rate of COVID-19 than Arkansas,” Health Secretary Dr. Nathaniel Smith said.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said any facilities that violated the order on elective surgeries would face “decisive action.” Health Department Spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said other health care providers have been investigated, but no others have received cease-and-desist letters.

“All medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures, including abortions, must be postponed until after this crisis has ended,” Rutledge, a Republican, said.

The number of people in Arkansas who have tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday rose to at least 1,171 and the number of deaths rose by two to 23. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

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