On Monday, January 25, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to dismiss an abortion-related case out of Texas. NBC News has reported the order as a “victory” for abortion advocates, but the abortion ban in question had actually been lifted in April 2020 by the state’s governor.
In the case of Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, Gov. of Texas, SCOTUS ordered:
The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit with instructions to dismiss the case as moot.
In late March 2020, during the first surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that all nonessential medical procedures be postponed so that hospitals and medical personnel could focus on patients with COVID-19, conserving medical resources and the limited supply of personal protection equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves. Attorney General Ken Paxton made clear at that time that this order included “any type of abortions” including chemical abortions (the abortion pill). In an unsurprising move, Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit.
Including abortion in the ban was important because abortion is a risky procedure — even the abortion pill can cause complications that send women to the emergency room. In fact, the abortion pill has been found to be four times as risky as first-trimester surgical abortion. Since abortion is an elective procedure, it made sense to ban it along with all other nonessential procedures in order to ensure already crowded hospitals were not receiving unnecessary emergency patients.
However, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the order was too broad and lifted the ban, but the Fifth Circuit restored the order in early April, stating that during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, a state can restrict travel, public worship, and the right to assemble — and that abortion is not an exception. On April 22, Gov. Abbott lifted some of the restrictions in his order, including the abortion ban. Texas asked the Supreme Court to keep the appeals court rulings on the books.
Planned Parenthood requested that the Supreme Court vacate the appeals court decision, arguing that when Abbott partially lifted the order, it ended the abortion giant’s opportunity to pursue the issue in court, and leaving the ruling as is could “tie petitioners’ hands in future cases.” In September, Planned Parenthood filed a petition for the Supreme Court to review the case, which was granted, and on Monday the Supreme Court ordered that the case be dismissed as moot.
What does the Supreme Court order mean?
Under Monday’s Supreme Court order, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that Texas was allowed to ban abortion during the pandemic has been vacated. In the event of a future public health crisis in which the governor orders a ban on nonessential procedures including abortion, the Fifth Circuit Court’s ruling will not be in place to protect that abortion ban.
Planned Parenthood is taking this as a “win” for abortion advocates, but it is important to note that nothing has changed in current Texas laws surrounding abortion.
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