Health & Science

Texans For & Against Abortion Rally Outside US Supreme Court Hearing Challenging Regulations

Houstonians on both sides of the abortion debate joined demonstrations outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices inside heard oral arguments about a 2013 Texas law that regulates abortion providers and clinics.

Texan Candice Russell outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the day justices heard arguments on a controversial law regulating abortion providers.
Texan Candice Russell outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the day justices heard arguments on a controversial law regulating abortion providers.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday morning in a case that could determine how Texas and other states can regulate abortion providers and clinics. Outside the court in Washington D.C., hundreds rallied for and against the Texas law. Many were chanting slogans, singing songs and brandishing signs.

Several Texans had traveled to Washington, D.C. to take part in the demonstrations, including Peggie Kohnert, a Houston realtor. At the age of 68, she said it was her first political rally.

"It's just a beautiful day,"Kohnert said during a phone interview from the plaza.

"The flag is at half-mast for Justice (Antonin) Scalia,” she added. “There's lots of signs, there are people with purple cowboy hats with uteruses on the front of them. There is someone with a uterus puppet!"

Kohnert felt inspired to come to D.C. because several family members have dedicated their careers to working at abortion clinics.

"I just feel like that there's always going to be abortions. Rich people will always have abortions. People will always try to have abortions,” Kohnert said. “I just think it should be safe and legal, and it's a decision between a woman and her doctor."

Many Texas lawmakers have said repeatedly that making abortion safer for women was exactly why they passed the law in 2013. It requires clinics to meet the same standards as outpatient surgery centers, among other strict new medical regulations.

Opponents sued, arguing it was unconstitutional. A federal court judge in Texas agreed, but the ruling was overturned by justices at the 5th Circuit Court of appeals in New Orleans. That led to the appeal to the highest court in the land.

An abortion rights supporter dressed as a uterus outside the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2, 2016.
Jesse Sebbo, 34, of Atlanta, wore a uterus costume during demonstrations outside the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2, 2016.

Protestors outside the U.S. Supreme Court said those regulations were bogus.

Chants of "Stop the sham! Stop the sham!" could be heard between speakers.

They insisted the safety rationale was merely a pretext for the law. Its true intent is to shut clinics down. A few years ago, Texas had more than 40 clinics, now there are about 20. If the Court upholds the 2013 law in full, about 10 more clinics will remain open and in compliance.

Anti-abortion activists fought for years to pass the Texas law, but maintain that clinic safety is their legitimate concern.

Elizabeth Graham, the director of Houston-based Texas Right to Life, acknowledged that many Texas clinics have closed since the law passed. But she said they don't have to close, if they would just upgrade their facilities and prioritize women's safety.

"If the clinics are going to choose not to comply, then they themselves are putting themselves at risk for closing," Graham said. "But the bill in no way specifically addresses closing clinics."

Graham explained that pro-life groups felt compelled in recent years to start advocating for improved medical conditions inside abortion clinics, particularly after a Philadelphia doctor, Kermit Gosnell, was convicted of murder for performing illegal late-term abortions. The case highlighted the unsanitary and unsafe conditions inside his clinic.

"We've always kind of stayed away from clinic regulations because we don't want to legitimize the business of killing unborn children," Graham said. "But what we found is that many clinics are substandard, that women have come out of clinics maimed, infertile and (with) all types of physical — not to mention the emotional — consequences."

Defenders of abortion rights disagree, and point to research that shows abortion is an extremely safe procedure. They call Gosnell a lone bad actor who was motivated by greed, was caught and has been punished.

Candice Russell is from Irving, TX and was also outside the Supreme Court Wednesday.

The 32-year-old testified against the Texas abortion bill in the Austin legislature in 2013. (More recently, she shared her story with the online news site RH Reality Check.)

Russell said that in the spring of 2014, her IUD contraceptive failed. She called clinics in nearby Dallas, but couldn't get an appointment in time. She blamed it on the Texas law, which at that time had shuttered clinics across Texas, and overwhelmed the Dallas clinics with patients.

Russell decided to take out a payday loan and fly to California for her abortion, before the pregnancy could progress any further.

"If that was the impact on one person, when clinic closures had just started happening...what is it going to look like when we have ten clinics?” Russell said. “It's unfathomable."

She realizes she was lucky to have worked out a plan for herself, but she knows most Texas women can't do that.

"The majority of people in this state can't just get on a plane, fly 1500 miles away and have an abortion,” Russell said. “And what it does is make this an economic issue."

Parts of the Texas law remain on hold until the Supreme Court rules. But the death of Justice Scalia has raised the prospect that the court may send the case back to lower court for further arguments or schedule a new hearing after Scalia is replaced.

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