US appeals court says Texas can suspend abortions during pandemic
Protestors rallied in St. Louis, Missouri on May 30, 2019 as the state's last abortion provider faced the prospect of losing its license AFP / SAUL LOEB

A US federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that Texas could temporarily suspend abortions as part of its response to the coronavirus crisis, overturning a ruling by a lower court the day before.

The governor of the conservative-leaning Lone Star State, Greg Abbott, had decreed that elective procedures should be delayed to ensure readiness to treat virus patients -- and to conserve protective gear for frontline workers.

About a week ago, state Attorney General Ken Paxton classified abortions as elective procedures, except in cases where the mother's life is in danger.

Violating the order is punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine, Paxton said.

Abortion rights activists cried foul, suing for an emergency injunction. Late Monday, a federal judge in the state capital Austin temporarily blocked Texas from enforcing the ban.

Paxton appealed on Tuesday, and quickly notched a victory -- albeit a partial one.

The appeals court issued a temporary stay of the lower court ruling, "to allow this court sufficient time to consider" the motion from abortion rights activists in depth.

Paxton hailed the decision, saying in a statement that the appellate ruling "justly prioritizes supplies and personal protective equipment for the medical professionals in need."

Several other conservative-leaning states besides Texas in the American South and Midwest have classified abortions as elective, non-essential procedures since the virus crisis erupted.

Court action has been initiated in five states. Beyond the initial Texas ruling, judges in Alabama and Ohio have also ruled that abortions cannot be suspended, citing the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe vs Wade that secures the right to an abortion.

The United States is now the country with the most coronavirus cases in the world, with more than 180,000. The death toll of more than 3,600 has surpassed the official Chinese count.