Gov. Greg Abbott used pandemic as cover to ban abortions in Texas, former Planned Parenthood head says

Cecile Richards, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, pictured at the 2018 Texas Tribune Festival. In an interview at the 2020 Festival that aired Wednesday, Richards said Gov. Greg Abbott used the pandemic as a guise to limit access to abortion. (Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune)

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Cecile Richards, a leading abortion rights activist, accused Gov. Greg Abbott of using the coronavirus pandemic as a guise to end abortion access in Texas.

The Texas native, who is a co-founder of women’s advocacy group Supermajority and the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, made the comment in an interview during The Texas Tribune Festival that aired Wednesday.

"I love Texas, but that is an example of a state where they use, and the governor, use the pandemic — a global health care crisis — to try to end abortion access in the state,” Richards said in the interview with Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th*, a nonprofit newsroom that covers the intersection of gender, politics and policy.

During the month-long period when Texas was shut down, top state officials and the courts effectively banned nearly all abortions. That kicked off weeks of litigation.

The first lawsuit came soon after Abbott postponed all medical procedures deemed “not medically necessary” while the state readied itself for an influx of patients with COVID-19. Attorney General Ken Paxton said the ban extended to abortions and the procedure could not be performed unless the mother's life was in danger. Abortion providers and members of the medical community said the state’s near-total ban on abortion lacked "a valid medical justification.”

The offices of Abbott and Paxton did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The politically conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals largely sided with state officials throughout the legal back and forth. But while officials battled in court, Texans were forced to travel out of the state to access legal abortion, experts said.

Abortion services resumed in late April when the halt on medical procedures was relaxed by a new executive order that took effect.

Texas is among about a dozen states “that use the cloak of this enormous crisis to try to end access to abortion,” Richards said.

In the initial weeks of the pandemic, a number of states including Texas tried to ban abortions as part of emergency orders. The other states include Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.

Meanwhile this week, state health officials walked back a plan to cut $15 million in funding that would have affected women's health programs, including services that offer low-income Texans access to birth control and cancer screenings.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.