Ruling halted closure of a dozen abortion clinics across the state, threatened under restrictive measures passed in 2013
|The Hilltop Women’s Reproductive clinic in El Paso, Texas would have been|
forced to close. Photograph: Juan Carlos LLorca/AP
Abortion providers across the US this weekend gave muted cheers to a court ruling that blocked a new law that would have caused more than half of the dwindling number of clinics in Texas to close as early as Monday.
The Texas state government immediately announced it would appeal the ruling, which was delivered late on Friday and which halted the closure of a dozen abortion clinics across the state.
“At least for the moment today’s victory is vital in preventing politicians’ scorched-earth assaults on women’s healthcare,” said Nancy Northup, chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights. The CCR filed the lawsuit, claiming the proposed law was unconstitutional.
Federal district judge Lee Yeakel agreed on Friday and declared, in the state capital Austin, in favour of the CCR.
Texas’ new abortion measures were signed into law by Texas governor Rick Perry in 2013 and have since been implemented in stages; the latest law, about surgical standards, was due to come into effect on Monday.
Yeakel also struck down, in part, a law requiring abortion doctors to be listed on the staff of a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where they worked. He blocked that rule in south and west Texas, around the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso areas.
Stephanie Toti, a senior staff attorney with the CCR, told the Guardian doctors in abortion clinics in those areas had received letters from local hospitals refusing to put them on staff in order to allow them to continue practicing.
“They said it was unrelated to their clinical skills. There is a lot of hostility to abortion providers in those areas,” she said.
If the judge had found against the clinics and the full set of laws had gone into effect in Texas, Toti said, a million people in south and west Texas would not have had an in-state abortion clinic within 150 miles.
The legislation approved by Perry also contained a ruling that abortion clinics would have to upgrade surgical standards to the level of a mini-hospital, and banned abortion after 20 weeks.
Supporters argued that the legislation was designed to improve healthcare standards for women and was not solely an attempt to reduce access to abortion.
Judge Yeakel ruled that the new law placed a burden on women without providing any medical benefits.
“The overall effect of the provisions is to create an impermissible obstacle as applied to all women seeking a pre-viability abortion,” Yeakel wrote in a 21-page ruling.
If the bill signed by Perry had gone into effect, the number of licensed abortion clinics in Texas would have dropped from 19 to seven, with all of those in the largest cities, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Forth Worth and Austin. A little more than two years ago there were 41 abortion clinics in the state. In many areas, women already have to drive hundreds of miles for repeat appointments.
“Texas women still face serious threats to their rights, health and ability to obtain safe, high-quality reproductive healthcare from reputable doctors in their communities,” said Northup.
The American College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians has warned that laws in a number of states shutting down abortion clinics are a threat to women’s health.
“Women will resort to other means to try to terminate a pregnancy, which will put their lives at risk,” said chief executive Hal Lawrence.
Federal judges have recently blocked similar laws to that which was passed in Texas, particularly those requiring doctors already licensed to perform abortions in clinics to be accredited at local hospitals. Such rules have been struck down in Alabama, Kansas, Wisconsin and Mississippi. The last-named state has only one remaining abortion clinic.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider in several states, said after the Texas ruling: “We are extremely pleased with Judge Yeakel’s ruling. As he states, requiring every abortion clinic to turn into a surgical centre is excessive and not based on good medicine.”
Some opponents of the law have pointed out that the higher surgical standards are not required of other clinics offering minor procedures unrelated to abortions, such as colonoscopies, which have a similar level of risk.
“This is a great victory for the women of Texas,” Toti told the Guardian. “But the state has already filed an appeal.”