Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge warned licensed health care professionals to follow the department of health’s issuance on elective surgeries in a statement on Friday.

The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) issued a directive on April 3 requiring all surgeries and procedures that aren’t immediately medically necessary to be postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This prohibition applies throughout the State to all surgeries and procedures that are not immediately medically necessary, including routine dental and eye visits, as well as most scheduled healthcare procedures such as orthopedic surgeries or any type of abortion that is not immediately medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother,” Rutledge said.

Postponing these, she said, will help make sure any needed hospital beds and personal protective equipment will be available during the current coronavirus situation.

“Arkansans must work together to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rutledge said. “Those who violate the Department of Health’s directive will be met with decisive action, and my office will forcefully defend the State officials involved in keeping Arkansans safe.”

Nate Smith, secretary of the health department, also encouraged the state’s only surgical abortion clinic – Little Rock Family Planning Services clinic – to stop seeing out-of-state patients.

According to the Associated Press, the ADH told the clinic in a letter that it had violated an order preventing elective surgeries during the COVID-19 crisis while other states like Texas and Oklahoma had already moved to ban the procedure at this time.

“We recently completed an unannounced investigation [on April 7, 2020] of your facility following the receipt of a complaint,” the letter reads in part.

Becky Bennett, the section chief with health facility services, said the investigation didn’t reveal any deficiencies with “respect to the rules for abortion facilities in Arkansas,” but the clinic was found in violation of the April 3 directive on elective surgeries, which could also be found on the ADH’s website. A copy was also mailed to the facility April 6.

“Your facility was found to be performing surgical abortions that are not immediately necessary to protect the life or health of the patient, and your facility is therefore in violation of the [directive],” the letter reads.

In turn, the facility was ordered to immediately cease and desist the abortions unless medically necessary and failure to do so would result in an immediate 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,” he said.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which represents the Little Rock Family Planning Services clinic, said the letter is being reviewed and the team is considering all options including a legal challenge.

“Effectively combating the spread of COVID-19 requires a government response that is grounded in science and public health, not politics,” Holly Dickson, the interim executive director and legal director of ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement. “You can’t press pause on a pregnancy, even during a pandemic, and abortion is essential, time-sensitive health care that cannot be postponed.”

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin also addressed the issue during a news conference on Wednesday.

A reporter asked Griffin if he thought Arkansas should ban abortions during the COVID-19 crisis as other states have.

“Well, the governor has already put out through the Department of Health some very specific guidance on what health care providers should and should not be doing, what they can be doing, in terms of elective surgeries, what’s essential, what’s nonessential,” he answered. “That guidance was put out, I believe, last week and it specifically mentions in that guidance, abortion clinics.

“So, I can’t speak for the governor but my understanding is, based on the guidance of the Department of Health, that the abortion clinics should not be operating under the current guidance.”

The reporter then asked Griffin if he believed that’s “how it should be.”

“Sure, yes,” Griffin replied.

On Friday, the lieutenant governor also issues a statement on the clinic’s noncompliance.

“As I indicated at my press conference Wednesday, abortion clinics should cease procedures,” he said. “I am pro-life, but abortion rights advocates describe the decision to abort as a ‘choice.’ That, by definition, means we can all agree that abortion procedures are elective. Abortion procedures should not be occurring in Arkansas, and I applaud the Health Department’s letter ordering them to cease and desist.”

Staff writer Hilary Andrews can be reached at handrews@the

cabin.net

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