Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas Abortion Regulation
A federal judge on Friday struck down new requirements for Texas abortion facilities — a decision that could have shuttered all but a few abortion clinics in the state.
The standards were set to go into effect Monday.
The lawsuit was brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of several abortion providers, asking U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of the District Court for the Western District of Texas to block the last provision of House Bill 2, which would have required abortion facilities to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Those include minimum sizes for rooms and doorways and having pipelines for anesthesia.
The law, which was passed by the Republican-led Legislature last year, included several strict abortion regulations that are already in effect.
In his ruling, Yeakel wrote that the law's ambulatory surgical center requirement "burdens Texas women in a way incompatible with the principles of personal freedom and privacy protected by the United States Constitution for the 40 years since Roe v. Wade."
Yeakel also said the state had reached a "tipping point" in limiting access to abortion when the ambulatory surgical center requirement is viewed in the context of the other state-imposed regulations. The regulations Yeakel mentioned include a 24-hour waiting period for abortions and requiring doctors to perform a sonogram on a woman at least 24 hours before she has an abortion.
"The court is firmly convinced that the State has placed unreasonable obstacles in the path of a woman's ability to obtain a previability abortion," Yeakel wrote.
Advocates of abortion rights quickly celebrated Yeakel's decision, admonishing the state's Republican leadership for attempting to "eradicate access to safe, legal and timely abortion care."
"There was no justification for the medically unnecessary regulations in HB2, no demonstrated problem with safety in our state’s already well-regulated abortion clinics," said Heather Busby, director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, said the ruling was a "victory for women's health care."
"These decisions should only be made between a woman, her doctor and her God — not Austin politicians like Attorney General Greg Abbott, who would make abortion illegal even in cases of rape and incest," said Davis, whose hours-long filibuster last summer pushed the law regulating abortions into the national spotlight.
The move temporarily stalled the bill, but the Legislature passed it about a month later.
Lauren Bean, spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general's office, said the state would "seek immediate relief" from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Abbott is the Republican gubernatorial candidate.
A request for comment from Abbott's campaign wasn't immediately returned.
Opponents of abortion said they were confident that the 5th Circuit would uphold the provision.
"We are disappointed that the court did not uphold House Bill 2 in its entirety," said Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life. "This means that beginning Sept. 1, women considering abortion will not receive all of the protections from threats to their health and safety that were intended by the Legislature and Governor [Rick] Perry."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a statement that Yeakel's ruling "undermines a concerted effort to improve health care for women in Texas" by improving safety standards at abortion clinics.
During five days of trial earlier this month, the clinics argued that the final provision would have created an unconstitutional barrier for women seeking access to abortion, leaving no abortion providers south or west of San Antonio. State attorneys contended that there wasn’t enough evidence that the rules create an “undue burden” for the majority of women seeking abortions.
There are currently 19 abortion clinics in Texas — down from 40 before the bill took effect. Six of the existing abortion facilities in Texas, all in major cities, meet the requirements, and Planned Parenthood is expected to soon open an additional clinic in Dallas.
Abortion providers previously unsuccessfully challenged the law’s admitting privileges provision, which requires all doctors who perform abortion procedures to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic.
The current lawsuit also asked the court to suspend the admitting privileges requirement for two clinics that shut down because of it: Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen and Reproductive Services in El Paso.
In his decision, Yeakel ruled in favor of granting the two clinics an exemption from this provision of the law. He wrote that women in these communities would be "most heavily" affected because of long travel distances that could exceed 500 miles, high poverty levels and "other issues uniquely associated with minority and immigrant populations."
In light of the ruling, Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO and founder of Whole Woman's Health, said her team is working to reopen the McAllen clinic in the next two days.
"We can reopen our McAllen clinic and see the women who need us in that community," Hagstrom Miller said during a call with reporters. "We already had at least two women that we knew were already traveling from McAllen all the way to San Antonio to get care this weekend, and they were the first people we called."
Christine Ayala contributed to this report.