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Texas defends abortion law to Supreme Court

Crime, Law and JusticeLaws and LegislationCourts and the JudiciarySocial IssuesJustice SystemPoliticsPlanned Parenthood

HOUSTON — In a U.S. Supreme Court filing Tuesday, Texas officials defended their right to enforce the state’s new abortion restrictions, arguing that they protect public health and would not significantly block women’s access to abortion.

Last week, Planned Parenthood and others opponents of new Texas abortion restrictions appealed to the Supreme Court to reinstate an injunction blocking portions of the law concerning doctors’ admitting privileges.

The appeal was filed with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who gave state officials until Tuesday to file a response. Scalia could rule on the injunction himself, or refer the issue to the full court.

He had no immediate response Tuesday, nor did the court, a spokesman said.

In their filing, Texas officials said that "this court has never held that abortion providers have a federally protected right to perform abortions.” The law, rather, protects the rights of patients to obtain early-term abortions "free of ‘undue burdens’ imposed by the state,” the state argued in its brief.

The state challenged the assertion by opponents of the law that the new restrictions had forced a third of the state’s licensed health centers to stop providing abortion services and that they would restrict abortion access to about 20,000 women annually. The officials said that clinics providing abortions had closed for a variety of reasons, not only because of the new state law.

“There is no federally protected ‘right’ of abortion providers to remain in business,” the state argued.

Planned Parenthood officials stood by their arguments Tuesday.

“Our goal is for the court to address the harm that is currently being done to women across Texas,” said Rochelle Tafolla, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, based in Houston. “We are hopeful that the court will put an end to this tragic situation.”

The new restrictions drew national attention this year when state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, staged a daylong filibuster initially blocking them in June.

The filibuster forced GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who is leaving office at the end of this term, to call a second special legislative session, where the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the law weeks later.

Soon after the law passed, Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers sued to stop some of the restrictions from taking effect. Late last month, a federal judge in Austin issued an injunction blocking portions of the law he found unconstitutional, including the admitting privileges requirement and limits on medication-induced abortions.

But the same week, state officials appealed and the injunction was mostly lifted by a federal appeals court in New Orleans pending the court's consideration of the case in January, although the judges made an exception for part of the medication-induced abortion provisions.

In the ruling, the three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott and other state officials offered ample evidence that the admitting privileges requirement protected women’s health.

Abbott, a Republican, is running for governor, as is Davis.

Some supporters of the law said the 5th Circuit’s ruling laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court to reject Planned Parenthood’s appeal.

But opponents of the law also had reason to believe the court might rule in their favor.

Similar requirements for admitting privileges in Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota and Wisconsin have been blocked by opponents. Mississippi passed a similar law last year, and also faced legal challenges. After a federal judge blocked the law pending a trial in March, that state’s attorney general asked the 5th Circuit to lift a temporary stay and allow the law to be enforced in the interim, but the court refused.

On Tuesday, for the second time in two weeks, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that strikes down a major abortion regulation from Oklahoma. Tuesday’s case involved a law that would have required women to undergo an ultrasound and hear about the size and possible heartbeat of the fetus before having an abortion. Last week, the justices refused to hear the state’s appeal of a law that would have prevented doctors from prescribing two drugs commonly used to induce abortion.

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