Out-of-state travel to Arkansas abortion clinic continues, despite coronavirus concerns

pro life gen Pro-life demonstrators awaits the Supreme in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, 2016. | Shutterstock

Health authorities have said an emergency ban on elective abortions in Arkansas was necessary to limit the number of women traveling from other states, and possibly bringing the coronavirus with them.

Though the fate of the ban is now in the federal courts, one observer said that the state's abortion clinic appears to be making the state an "abortion destination" attracting women from out-of-state.

"If the Arkansas Department of Health and the governor's office have found that a ban on elective surgeries is needed to protect public health during this pandemic, then this decision should be respected and followed by surgical providers, including this abortion provider," Catherine Phillips of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Little Rock's Respect Life Office told CNA April 16.

"What is particularly troubling in this situation is the apparent increase in the number of abortions in the past three weeks as well as the apparent increase in the number of women who are traveling to Little Rock Family Planning Services from out of state, especially Texas and Louisiana, during this national health emergency," she said.

"It's very distressing to see 25 cars in the parking lot at Little Rock Family Planning Services and at least one-third of those cars with out-of-state license plates."

Last week Arkansas ordered Little Rock Family Planning Services to stop performing surgical abortions except those performed to protect the life and health of the mother. The clinic said it had scheduled about 20 women for abortions, the Associated Press reports.

On April 9 Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. Nathaniel Smith encouraged the abortion clinic to stop seeing out-of-state patients, the Associated Press reports. The next day, the Department of Health said any further violations of the 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," Smith said.

Phillips said the Arkansas governor has "repeatedly" emphasized limits on travel to the state as part of a strategy to slow the spread of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

"Arkansas seems to have become an 'abortion destination' and this has been described as a 'public health hazard'," she continued. "It is particularly appalling that while so many are unemployed and so many of us are making sacrifices to protect the health of those who are most vulnerable to this coronavirus, at Little Rock Family Planning Services it is business as more than usual."

The lawsuit has had initial success and secured a temporary restraining order against state action, but the case is now under the consideration of the federal courts.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has said in an appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal that a federal judge wrongly ruled that elective abortions are exempt from an Arkansas emergency ban on elective surgeries, the Associated Press reports. Rutledge said the injunction was issued without allowing the state to respond, in effect "declaring abortion a judicial sacred cow - untouchable even in an effort to save lives."

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker on April 14 granted a temporary restraining order against the state of Arkansas' order to halt elective abortions. Baker said the limited record supports the allegation that enforcement of the order will inflict serious physical, emotional, and psychological injuries on (the abortion provider's) patients by forcing them to delay, or altogether forgo, access to abortion care."

Phillips said the judge's comments are limited to the clients seeking abortion at the clinic.

"If we look at the larger picture we can talk about the many women who have been seriously wounded- emotionally, psychologically and even physically by abortion," she said. "Our Project Rachel Ministry works with hundreds of these women (and a few men, too) every year and provides resources and opportunities for healing from the deep wounds of abortion."

For Phillips, the debate is an opportunity to raise awareness about "the devastation caused by abortion," and also the need to help women who seek it.

"When a mother faces an unplanned pregnancy, she needs better care than legal access to abortion. She needs real help. The Catholic Church vigorously opposes abortion and is ready to help any mother in need, especially during this pandemic when a mother may be particularly anxious. Especially now when we are physically apart, women are in great need of friendship and compassion. Worried mothers need help with financial and material resources and also with emotional and spiritual support during the pregnancy and for the family after the baby is born."

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She said parishes, pregnancy centers and other community groups can provide this care.

"As the court battles over abortion continue, we pray for a day when abortion will be illegal, but also for a day when it will not even be considered an option," she said. "Our governor has pledged that Arkansas''will do all that is necessary to protect life' and as the Church in Arkansas is committed to do our part to translate these words into effective service."

Several other states, including Alabama, Alaska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas, have attempted to classify elective abortions as non-essential procedures during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Many states have suspended medical procedures deemed non-emergency or non-essential in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus and to free up medical resources and hospital capacity.

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