WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States this week, Republicans in Texas and Mississippi sought to further limit abortion access and New Jersey’s Democratic governor refused to declare gun shops an essential service that would stay open.
Welcome to America’s culture wars in the age of the coronavirus.
As states scramble to slow the spread of the sometimes fatal respiratory disease by closing schools and businesses and directing more than half the nation’s population to stay home, some governors’ actions have lined up neatly with their parties’ national priorities on hot-button issues.
Alarmed about a potential curbing of constitutional rights, activists on both sides filed legal challenges to the moves.
“It’s hard to imagine more compelling circumstances to restrict someone’s fundamental rights than a deadly epidemic,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that women have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion, a ruling that many conservatives have objected to ever since.
Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Monday that abortion providers were covered by a state order that required the cancellation of non-urgent surgical procedures.
On Wednesday, abortion rights advocates filed a lawsuit accusing Paxton of a “blatant effort to exploit a public health crisis to advance an extreme, anti-abortion agenda.” They said the measure had already led clinics to cancel scores of appointments this week.
“Abortion is essential, time-sensitive health care that must remain available during this pandemic - particularly because every pregnancy is unique and brings significant health risks,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Centre for Reproductive Rights group representing the plaintiffs.
Confusion reigns over similar orders in Ohio, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Republican Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said on Tuesday that abortions must end and vowed to take action if the lone abortion clinic in the state did not stop the procedure.
“We’re doing everything in our power, and have for many years, to make Mississippi the safest place in America for unborn children,” Reeves told reporters.
Separately, a coalition of anti-abortion groups including National Right to Life and the Family Research Council sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services urging that pressure be put on clinics to curb abortions during the pandemic.
“While we are in a hectic race to save lives, Planned Parenthood and other powers in the abortion industry remain insistent on taking the lives of innocent unborn children,” the letter said. Among other things, the groups urged the Trump administration to ask abortion clinics to cease operations and donate equipment to hospitals.
The agency did not respond to a request seeking comment.
At least two lawsuits have been filed by gun rights activists who say that the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be violated if gun stores are required to close down as part of state emergency orders.
One lawsuit in New Jersey filed against Democratic Governor Phil Murphy alleges that gun rights were violated because dealers were not included in an executive order listing essential businesses that could remain open.
It also said that after the executive order was issued, state police stopped conducting background checks required for firearms purchases.
The measures act “as a perpetual ban on purchasing firearms and ammunition,” the lawsuit said.
Gun stores in other states have seen a surge of sales in the pandemic’s early days.
Gun Owners of America, which calls itself a “no compromise” gun lobby group, warned in a letter to the FBI of mounting problems with the background check system, especially if states that conduct background checks shutter their offices.
“The Second Amendment cannot simply be put on hold because of COVID-19,” the group said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Tom Wolf allowed gun stores to reopen on a limited basis after an emergency legal challenge there reached the state Supreme Court amid confusion over which businesses were required to close.
Voting rights groups have also raised concerns about the virus’ impact on the November election, with some Democratic nominating elections already delayed.
Questioning whether people will be able to vote in person because of restrictions on movement, Democrats and voting rights groups have been urging a move to allow all Americans to vote by mail. Some conservatives oppose such measures, saying it could lead to voting fraud.
“It’s a very big problem if we want elections that are credible this November. Unfortunately there are some in Congress who don’t see this as time-urgent,” said Larry Norden, who leads the election reform program at the Brennan Centre for Justice, which backs measures that would make it easier for people to vote.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington and Andrew Chung in New York; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Jan Wolfe in Washington and Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney