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Health & Science

Texas Abortion Fight Lands In New Orleans Courtroom

Appeals panel could decide if Texas can shut down a dozen clinics



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Update 7:00 p.m.

A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans held a hearing Friday to decide whether about a dozen abortion clinics in Texas must immediately close their doors.

No recording was allowed during the nearly two-hour hearing in downtown New Orleans. In their questions, the three judges focused on the impact of the Texas law requiring abortions to take place in surgery centers. That could leave only about eight clinics in the state, all in the big cities.

The judges asked would that constitute an “undue burden” for women seeking abortions?  

They pressed both sides to say what exactly the evidence showed.

The solicitor general for Texas, Jonathan Mitchell, said there wasn’t good evidence that women would be unduly burdened. For example, he said women in El Paso could go to New Mexico for abortions.

On the other side was Stephanie Toti with the Center for Reproductive Rights. After the hearing, she summed up her arguments for reporters.

“There are many obstacles women face in having to travel those long distances, besides the obvious ones of just getting from point A to point B,” Toti said.

Toti said it wasn’t as simple as helping women travel to the remaining legal clinics from places like the Rio Grande Valley.

For example, a clinic in San Antonio had tried that, offering patients in the Valley gas cards and free bus tickets to come north for abortions.

“But the vast majority of women declined that assistance because they said you know it wasn’t just about the money,” Toti explained, “it was about the inability to obtain child care, the inability to take consecutive days off from work, the inability to account for their whereabouts to friends and family members without  them finding out that they were obtaining abortion services.”

Emily Horne is withTexas Right to Life. She says the Texas solicitor general was correct to view this as an emergency.

“We see this as an improvement to the safety of Texas women,” Horne said. “So as soon that can be implemented is better.”

Horne says the state gave the clinics plenty of time to become surgery centers. 

“They were given over a year after the passage of this to bring their clinics into effect. So it’s not as if this has been thrust upon them quickly,” she said.

One abortion rights activist travelled from Houston to attend the hearing. Sandy Jones is with the group Stop Patriarchy.

“These are forces that are determined to criminalize every abortion, every woman, and make it inaccessible to every woman,” Jones said. “And birth control, as we know, is not far behind. This is a war on women, this is a state of emergency.”

In late August, a federal judge struck down the Texas law requiring all abortions take place in outpatient surgery centers. The state appealed, which led to the latest hearing.  

It’s unclear when the judges will rule but it could be very soon, and the clinics that aren’t ambulatory surgery centers would have to close right away. 


Update at 3:00 p.m.

A federal appeals court heard arguments today on Texas new abortion law. This comes after a judge struck down portions of it. The ruling could determine the fate of 11 clinics in the state.

Three judges heard arguments this morning for more than 90 minutes, first from the Texas solicitor general and then from a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The questions centered mainly on what constitutes an “undue burden” when a woman is trying to get an abortion.

Both sides agreed that if the 11 clinics close, women in the Valley would have to travel more than 200 miles to San Antonio to get an abortion under the new law.

But the Texas attorney said there was no good evidence that women weren’t figuring out how to deal with that. The lawyer for the clinics argued that there was good evidence, that patients had told clinics it wasn’t just the distance, but the problems with child care, time off work, and explaining to family why they were going so far.

It’s unclear when the judges will rule but it could be soon even over the weekend.


Update at 11:00 a.m.

An appeals court is set to hear arguments on a Texas abortion law, portions of which a federal judge has ruled unconstitutional.

At stake is the fate of 11 abortion clinics in Texas during Friday’s hearing before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The arguments are expected to center around the surgery center requirement of the law.

It states that all abortions in the state must take place in ambulatory surgery centers. Most doctors’ offices are not equipped as surgical centers and it is very expensive to upgrade facilities to meet the new standards. Clinics had until Sept. 1, 2014 to comply.

Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin ruled earlier this month that the surgery center rule in the law created an “undue burden” to women needing an abortion, especially women in the Rio Grande Valley and west Texas. In his decision, Yeakel also wrote that the admitting privileges requirement didn’t apply to the McAllen clinic and an El Paso clinic, because there were no other places in the Rio Grande Valley to get an abortion besides those two places.

Up to 11 clinics said they could not afford the transition and were about to shut down before Yeakel’s ruling. If the clinics had shut down, the number of places to get an abortion in Texas would have dropped from 19 to 8 and be concentrated in large cities.

A group of abortion clinics, Whole Woman’s Health, sued to stop the surgery center requirement from taking effect. Opponents of the law argue that pro-life lawmakers are using regulations to stop abortions in Texas.

Attorney General Greg Abbott — who is running as the GOP candidate for governor against Democrat Wendy Davis — responded of Yeakel’s decision by filing a request for an emergency stay. Abbott requested that Texas be allowed to shut down the clinics while he appealed the judge’s decision. The appellate court denied the request.

Supporters of the law say it is designed to improve patient safety, and that existing clinics had more than a year to get ready.

 This story will be updated.