Texas and Ohio have ordered doctors to suspend carrying out abortions and all other non-urgent surgery as part of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Abortion rights activists criticized the moves as an ideological maneuver and said abortions are not procedures that can simply be put on hold.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued the order Saturday mandating a halt to all surgery that is not "immediately medically necessary" so as to free up hospital beds for coronavirus patients and medical equipment for health care professionals taking care of them.

The order applies to abortions except in cases in which the mother's life is in danger, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton said Monday. Texas is a conservative, largely Republican state.

"Those who violate the governor's order will be met with the full force of the law," Paxton said in a statement. He said violations can be punished with up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.

"It's completely unsurprising to see this attorney general use any excuse to push his ideological agenda," said Kathy Miller, president of an abortion rights group called the Texas Freedom Network.

An opponent of abortion outside the only clinic in Missouri that offered the procedure
An opponent of abortion outside the only clinic in Missouri that offered the procedure AFP / SAUL LOEB

"But the truth is reproductive health care is essential health care," Miller said. "There are many reasons women decide to have an abortion in the already limited time window state law allows, and a delay means denying them the constitutional right to make those decisions in a safe, timely manner with the help of their doctors."

In Ohio, after health authorities suspended non-urgent surgery, the state attorney general sent letters to three facilities that provide abortions ordering them to comply with the order.

"This is not an abortion issue. A letter was also sent to a urology group that was allegedly performing elective surgeries," said Bethany McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general.

Two of the clinics involved, run by Planned Parenthood, said they are complying with the order but insisted that "abortion is an essential, time-sensitive medical procedure."

The US Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 but individual states have been setting their own rules, leading to major disparities among the various regions of the US.

Southern and central states with a lot of influence from religious conservatives, for instance, have imposed restrictive laws that make it harder for women to get abortions.