An activist holds a sign during an abortion rights protest in Dayton, Ohio on May 19, 2019.
Megan Jelinger—SOPA Images/Getty Images
March 25, 2020 11:37 AM EDT

Texas and Ohio have identified abortion as one of the non-essential medical procedures that should be delayed amid the coronavirus outbreak, fueling the debate over abortion rights in states that have already sought to restrict them.

As the coronavirus spreads across the U.S., threatening to overwhelm hospitals, several states have required that nonessential surgeries and medical procedures be delayed, especially as healthcare workers face severe shortages of personal protective equipment.

But now that advice has intersected with the battle over abortion rights, while advocates warn that women seeking abortions might not be able to wait weeks for treatment.

“We must work together as Texans to stop the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that our health care professionals and facilities have all the resources they need to fight the virus at this time,” Texas Attorney General Paxton said in a statement, after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the postponement of all surgeries and procedures that are “not immediately, medically necessary.”

“No one is exempt from the governor’s executive order on medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures, including abortion providers,” Paxton said. “Those who violate the governor’s order will be met with the full force of the law.”

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost also ordered clinics to stop performing abortions, defining non-essential abortions as “those that can be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of a patient,” the Columbus Dispatch reported.

But the leaders of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio and Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region have pushed back, calling abortion an “essential, time-sensitive medical procedure.”

Several states have passed laws restricting abortion access in recent years. In Ohio last year, lawmakers passed a law banning abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around five or six weeks of pregnancy. But a federal judge blocked the law from being enforced in July. Texas bans abortion after 20 weeks, unless the woman’s life is in danger or there is a lethal fetal abnormality.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other medical groups also urged hospitals and clinics not to cancel or delay abortion procedures due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care,” they said in a joint statement. “It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible. The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person’s life, health, and well-being.”

Other states, including Massachusetts and Washington, have identified abortion as a necessary medical procedure at this time.

On Tuesday, a coalition of anti-abortion advocacy groups sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, asking him to urge abortion providers to “cease operations” and donate their personal protective equipment to the coronavirus response.

“Abortion is an essential and time-sensitive medical procedure — and it must remain so during this public health crisis,” Planned Parenthood said in a tweet. “Delays or additional barriers to care can make it more difficult or even impossible for patients to access safe, legal abortion.”

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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