By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN — A federal appeals court Thursday gave Texas permission to fully enforce a sweeping abortion law signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry last year that would effectively close all but seven abortion facilities in America’s second-most populous state.
Two years ago, Texas had more than 40 abortion facilities. Many clinics have already closed under a part of the law requiring doctors who perform abortions to obtain hospital admitting privileges, and now more than a dozen remaining clinics are set to shutter as well.
The decision by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court in New Orleans wipes out what was a fleeting victory for abortion rights groups — a lower court in August blocking requirements of the law that say clinics must meet hospital-level operating standards to stay in business.
The ruling is only a stay pending a full appeal, but the court wrote that Texas is likely to prevail. If it does, the clinics would have to make costly upgrades to meet the new standards and reopen.
The impact stands to be felt most along the Texas-Mexico border and in the western half of the state, where access to a legal abortion is especially limited. The only abortion clinic in McAllen, which reopened after the lower court’s ruling, now stands to close again. That would leave women in the Rio Grande Valley facing a 300-mile drive to the next-nearest abortion facility.
But the court wrote that “women from McAllen have been travelling outside their city for nearly a year and Plaintiffs made no showing that clinics in San Antonio (or any other city) have been deluged.”
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin ruled in August that the Texas law would require abortion clinics to spend millions of dollars on hospital-level upgrades and that it was less about safety than making access to abortion difficult.
Abortion-rights groups bristled Thursday over having that victory taken away.
“Today’s ruling has gutted Texas women’s constitutional rights and access to critical reproductive health care and stands to make safe, legal abortion essentially disappear overnight,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Under the entire scope of the law, only seven abortion facilities in Texas meet the requirements. All those facilities are concentrated around the major cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth.
Attorneys for the state have denied that women would be burdened by fewer abortion facilities, saying nearly 9 in 10 Texas women would still live within 150 miles of a provider. The law’s opponents, however, note that still leaves nearly a million Texas women embarking on drives longer than three hours to get an abortion.
The lawsuit in Texas is the latest battle over tough new abortion restrictions sweeping across the U.S.