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In Ohio, A Debate About Whether Abortion Counts As An 'Essential Service'

Updated March 22 at 5:58 a.m. ET

Abortion rights groups are accusing the attorney general of Ohio of using the coronavirus crisis to restrict abortion access after clinics in the state were sent letters this week faulting them for not complying with an order aimed at preserving a limited supply of surgical equipment and protective gear.

In a letter dated on Tuesday, Ohio's Department of Health ordered all non-essential surgical and elective procedures postponed so that protective equipment like masks and gowns can be reserved for doctors caring for coronavirus patients. Ohio has seen 174 coronavirus cases and three deaths.

The order outlines several criteria for non-essential services, including procedures that can be delayed without risking a patient's life or long-term health, and without rapidly worsening a health condition.

Following the order, the office of Attorney General Dave Yost issued letters instructing Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers to stop performing procedures that "can be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of the patient."

Reproductive rights groups say abortion should be considered an essential service not subject to delays, as many health procedures are postponed nationwide during the coronavirus outbreak.

Planned Parenthood issued a statement saying it is complying with the order by stopping non-essential services and taking other steps to conserve equipment. The statement added, "Under that order, Planned Parenthood can still continue providing essential procedures, including surgical abortion, and our health centers continue to offer other health care services that our patients depend on."

In a statement, Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said politicians who oppose abortion rights are "brazenly exploiting a global pandemic to roll back access to abortion care."

The statement noted that Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill into law last year prohibiting abortion after cardiac activity can be detected, before many women know they're pregnant. That law, like several similar bills passed last year, was blocked by a federal judge.

In response to complaints, the attorney general's office says the order does not apply solely to abortion providers and noted that a urology group also received a letter instructing it to comply with the Department of Health order.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and several other reproductive health groups have issued a statement opposing the delay or cancellation of abortion procedures because of the coronavirus outbreak, describing abortion as 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."
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