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Health & Science

Judge Strikes Down Part of Texas Abortion Law

The decision will allow about a dozen abortion clinics to continue operating for now.


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A federal judge in Austin has struck down part of a Texas law that requires all abortions to take place in ambulatory surgical centers. The regulation would have shuttered about a dozen abortion clinics that are unable to comply, leaving only eight places in Texas to get an abortion, all in major cities.

Judge Lee Yeakel ruled the regulation was unconstitutional and would have placed an undue burden on women, particularly poor and rural women in West Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.

The rule was set to go into effect Monday. Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican running for governor, immediately filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit.

“We applaud today’s ruling from Judge Yeakel,” said Rochelle Tafolla, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Houston. “But we also understand that the fight to protect women’s access to medical care, including safe and legal abortion, is not over.” 

Supporters of the law said the surgical center requirement would make abortion safer, but the judge found no health benefit. He wrote the effect might actually be the opposite: “Higher health risks associated with increased delays in seeking early abortion care, risks associated with longer distance automotive travel on traffic-laden highways, and the act’s possible connection to observed increases in self-induced abortions almost certainly cancel out any potential health benefit associated with the requirement.”

Yeakel also wrote the intent was to close existing abortion clinics, noting the state left no provision for “grandfathering” existing clinics that could not afford millions of dollars in upgrades to come into compliance with the surgery center codes.

A local Houston obstetrician-gynecologist called the ruling “beautiful.” (He asked not to be identified because he fears abortion protestors).

The doctor would have had to stop performing abortions in his two office locations, which do not meet the surgery center requirements. He says he cannot afford to construct or purchase an ambulatory surgery center, and leasing space in an existing center is difficult because other tenants don’t want protestors around.

“This was a good case,” he said. “There is no medical anything, anywhere to show that having this is done in a hospital or ambulatory surgical center, it’s safer. It’s nonsense, it’s not. Complications are the same, risks are the same.”

The doctor said he told patients seeking abortions to make appointments, but keep in contact with his office.

“‘You call me, listen to the news, keep your fingers crossed and pray for the women of Texas to have their constitutional rights restored.’ That’s what I told patients today,” he added.

Texas Right to Life, a Houston-based group, said in a statement that “Pro-Life Texans are disappointed in the dangerous ruling and disconcerted by the prospect that the financial interests of big business abortionists are placed in higher regard than the safety and health of women. The women of Texas have been subjected to shoddy, sub-par and potentially dangerous abortion facilities for too long.”

In the decision, Judge Yeakel focused on poor, rural and disadvantaged women. He said the burden did not just involve the hundreds of miles some women would have to travel. He said the distance had to be assessed along with other factors such as the need for child care, the unreliability of transportation, the inability to take time off work, and immigration status and inability to pass checkpoints.

“When viewed in the context of the other state-imposed obstacles a woman faces when seeking an abortion in Texas — including a sonogram requirement, a waiting period, and the reduced number of abortion performing physicians resulting from the admitting-privilege requirement — 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,” he wrote.

The Houston doctor said he realizes he may have to cancel abortion appointments next week, depending on how the Fifth Circuit responds. He said his patients have to become more proactive.

“I’m there to support them in their right to choose,” he said. “But, you know, I’m not going to take the whole thing on my head. If they want it, they should be out there actually protesting and voting too.”