SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – The Center for Reproductive Rights has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Louisiana abortion clinics challenging the state’s actions to close them amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Center for Reproductive Rights represents the Hope Medical Group clinic in Shreveport, which has been targeted by a Louisiana Attorney General’s Office task force set up to investigate medically licensed facilities for violations of a Louisiana Office of Public Health order issued March 21 suspending all elective, non-emergency medical procedures and surgeries until further notice.
The legal advocacy organization says Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has targeted abortion clinics for closure, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as justification. In the lawsuit, the Center is asking a federal court to immediately block attempts to shutter the Shreveport clinic and others in the state.
“This is a shameful abuse of power,” said Nancy Northup, President & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights in a statement Tuesday announcing the lawsuit. “Louisiana has been trying for decades to end abortion. We are already fighting a separate Louisiana law at the Supreme Court that would shut down nearly every clinic in the state. If the state’s latest actions are not blocked, that will become a reality before the Supreme Court even rules.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards confirmed in his daily briefing Tuesday that the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office turned over a report to the Louisiana Department of Health Monday on their investigation into whether some medical providers, including the Hope Medical Group for Women abortion clinic in Shreveport, are violating emergency orders to suspend non-emergency procedures. Edwards said he has reviewed the report, but declined to comment on the findings, citing pending litigation.
For his part, Landry’s office issued a brief response to the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon, saying the N”ew York-based legal activist group… is once again demanding that abortion clinics in LA get special exemptions from the standards other medical facilities are required to follow.”
“As we have noted in our previous public statements on this issue, the LDH notice applies equally statewide to all licnsed medical facilities and medical professionals. But yet again, abortion clinics like June Medical are asserting the rules that apply to other facilities do not apply to them. While the rest of the [sic] Louisiana has come together to fight COVID-19, it is disappointing that June Medical is once again claiming they are exceptional and entitled to a blanket exemption. And while we have yet to be served with this lawsuit, our State’s citizens can rest assured that we will do all we legally can to protect the health and safety of all in Louisiana.”
The CRR says it is challenging similar COVID-19 abortion restrictions in Texas and Oklahoma. It is also awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in June Medical Services v. Russo, a case challenging another Louisiana law designed to shut down abortion clinics.
In response to the AG’s calls for the LDH to enforce the emergency order against the Shreveport clinic, the Center for Reproductive Rights has said services provided at Hope Medical Group provides are essential and repeated that assertion in a news conference via conference call Tuesday.
“Hope Medical Group for Women is in full compliance of the Notice, but the Attorney General’s recent actions have thrown our patients into a state of fear and panic. There are women in Louisiana who need an abortion today—they cannot wait. But our hands are now being tied by the state,” said Kathaleen Pittman, clinic administrator for Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport.
“If women can’t access abortion here in Louisiana, they will no doubt attempt to access care in other states, which will only hurt efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Most of our patients are already mothers, so they are dealing with all this on top of caring for kids while schools are closed, and many are struggling financially.”
During Tuesday’s news conference, Pittman described an unannounced visit from two members of the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office on March 29 as “very disconcerting.”
“We’re accustomed to visits from the Louisiana Department of Health, but never from the AG’s office,” Pittman said, noting that they did not have a warrant when they showed up and spent several hours at the clinic asking about protocols, and their supply of Personal Protective Equipment. They did a tour of the clinic, observed their cleaning processes and how chairs and recovery beds were positioned to ensure social distancing. Pittman said they also asked to review patient charts. They were allowed to review some of those charts, but they were not allowed to take them out of the building.
After that, Pittman said, they consulted with their attorneys and concluded that the confidential information in the charts should not be release to the AG’s office, which she noted “normally has no bearing as far as the inspection and running of the clinics.”
Pittman also noted that the clinic has seen an increase in calls from out of state from women seeking abortion services in other states where restrictions under pandemic emergency orders are already in place.
Friday’s lawsuit joins similar suits filed in several other states, including Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
The Hope Medical Group for Women is one of three in the state that provides abortions to women, and it is challenging a state law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Interim LDH Secretary Stephen Russo and former Secretary of the State Department of Health and Hospitals Dr. Rebekah Gee are named as defendants in the suit.
The Supreme Court heard the case on March 4. Opinions are typically handed down during the months of May and June. It’s not clear yet whether an opinion in the case can still be expected during that time frame due to the coronavirus pandemic.