Texas abortion law clears latest hurdle
NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- A Texas law passed last summer that tightened the state's abortion regulations has been upheld by the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The much-anticipated ruling from the three-judge panel in New Orleans was unanimous.
In a Jan. 6 hearing, the tone of questions from the judges had hinted they were skeptical of arguments that the law placed an undue burden on women seeking abortions.
Last October, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel struck two down requirements in Texas House Bill 2: that abortion doctors have hospital privileges within 30 miles of their clinics and that a physician be present to monitor administration of abortion-causing drugs, such as mifepristone, commonly known as RU-486. Yeakel ruled that the requirements placed an unconstitutional "substantial obstacle" to abortion.
The bill also outlawed abortions beyond 20 weeks post-fertilization.
The law is being challenged by a group of Planned Parenthood affiliates, several other abortion providers and three Texas physicians who have argued, among other things, that the hospital admitting requirements will close clinics and reduce access to abortions. The Dallas Morning News reported that 13 of the state's 37 abortions clinics have closed since the law was passed, including the only two serving a four-county area of the Rio Grande Valley.
Judge Edith Jones, writing on behalf of the appeals court March 27, said "an increase in travel of less than 150 miles for some women is not an undue burden" and that of 254 Texas counties, only 13 of them had abortion facilities before HB 2 became law. Furthermore, the "burden does not fall on the vast majority of Texas women seeking abortions," Jones wrote.
The court also found that the hospital privileges requirement met the legal test of being "rationally related to a legitimate state interest" in protecting women.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican candidate for governor, said in a statement after the ruling: "This unanimous decision is a vindication of the careful deliberation by the Texas Legislature to craft a law to protect the health and safety of Texas women."
Pro-life groups also hailed the ruling.
"We are pleased that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agrees with the overwhelming majority of the Texas Legislature that the state has a right to increase safety standards at abortion facilities to protect the health and safety of women," Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, said.
Kyleen Wright, executive director of Texans for Life, said via Twitter: "Happiness is 3 brilliant women on the 5th Circ! Justices Jones, Elrod & Haynes rock. #WomenRule #HB2 #Stand4Life."
Abortion advocates, meanwhile, vowed to keep fighting.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement: "We will combat these laws in the courts, and our separate political arm will mobilize voters to replace lawmakers who champion these dangerous laws in the first place."
Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, who argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, said the appeals court "has turned a blind eye to the very real and devastating consequences that this law has had on thousands of Texas women, erecting barriers to abortion so high that women are simply left with no legal or safe options."
Northup said her group is "considering every necessary step to end this health crisis and restore the essential health care that has been unconstitutionally stripped away."
In November, the U.S. Supreme Court declined, by a 5-4 margin, to intervene in the case, placing the law back in the hands of the appeals court.
But many believe the Supreme Court eventually will take it up. Stephen Breyer, one of the four liberal justices on the High Court, wrote of the hospital privileges requirement back in November that it is "a difficult question. It is a question, I believe, that at least four Members of this Court will wish to consider irrespective of the Fifth Circuit's ultimate decision."
Jerry Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.