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Federal judge strikes down key part of restrictive Texas abortion law

In Texas, a temporary victory for abortion rights activists

A federal judge late Friday struck down two provisions of a Texas law that has already forced the closure of half the state’s abortion clinics, granting at least a temporary reprieve to nearly a dozen more facilities that would have otherwise gone out of business Monday.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, in a 21-page decision, concluded that when the two provisions in question “are considered together, they create a scheme that effects the closing of almost all abortion clinics in Texas that were operating legally in the fall of 2013.”

As a result, Yeakel said, “the overall effect of the provisions is to create an impermissible obstacle as applied to all women” seeking an abortion. If the provisions were allowed to stand, women in Texas would shoulder an “unconstitutional undue burden,” he wrote, because the Texas law restricts access to previously available legal facilities.

Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott immediately filed a notice that he would appeal Yeakel’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which has upheld abortion restrictions.

The two measures struck down by Yeakel are part of House Bill 2, an omnibus antiabortion law passed in July 2013, which attacked access in four separate ways:

It banned nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It required that abortion-inducing drugs such as mifepristone be administered in the presence of a doctor, resulting in three separate clinic visits. It mandated that physicians performing the procedure have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where they practice. And it demanded that all abortion clinics have the same equipment and building requirements as ambulatory surgery centers, even if all they do is administer oral antiabortion drugs.

On Friday, Yeakel struck down the ambulatory surgical center requirements statewide and the admitting privileges mandate as it applies to two clinics, one in the Rio Grande Valley, the other in West Texas, regions where women have the least access to abortion services.

If the law stood, he wrote, after Sept. 1, “only seven facilities and a potential eighth will exist in Texas,” a state with 5.4 million women of reproductive age. It would mean that around 2 million of those women would have to travel more than 50 miles to reach an abortion clinic and that three-quarters of a million would have to travel more than 200 miles.

“Even if the remaining clinics could meet the demand,” Yeakel wrote, “the court concludes that the practical impact on Texas women due to the clinics’ closure statewide would operate for a significant number of women in Texas just as drastically as a complete ban on abortion.”

Proponents of abortion rights, noting that Texas had 40 clinics before HB 2 was passed, cheered Yeakel’s ruling. They said it was the third decision in a month that knocked down the requirement on admitting privileges after judges in Alabama and Mississippi reached similar conclusions.

“It will prevent the closure of a number of Texas abortion clinics that have been providing high-quality healthcare to Texas women for decades,” Stephanie Toti, who is with the Center for Reproductive Rights and is lead attorney for the clinics that sued to overturn portions of HB 2, said of Yeakel’s ruling. “It will ensure that Texas women will continue to have access to safe and legal abortion care throughout the state of Texas.”

State Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat who is running for governor against Abbot, called Yeakel’s decision “a victory for women's healthcare. These decisions should only be made between a woman, her doctor and her God — not Austin politicians like Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, who would make abortion illegal even in cases of rape and incest.”

Davis became a household name when she filibustered, in bright pink running shoes, to block HB 2 during a special session of the Texas Legislature, though that win was short-lived.

Lisa Paul, a spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, called the ruling “a rejection of Mad Men-era politics and policies.” The Republican legislators who wrote and passed HB 2, Paul said, “are wrong for Texas, and today’s decision reaffirms that it is time for a change in our state.”

Jonathan Saenz, president of a conservative Austin-based group called Texas Values, said he was disappointed but not surprised, given Yeakel’s record. And he said he was confident that the decision would eventually be overturned by the conservative 5th Circuit.

“Efforts by pro-abortion advocates in the past to stall the implementation of these common-sense laws that look to protect the health and safety of women have been stopped by the 5th Circuit,” Saenz said. “This will not be the end of this issue by a long shot.”

Emily Horne, a legislative associate with Texas Right to Life, echoed Saenz’s mix of hope and displeasure.

“These rulings impact safety provisions put in place last year,” Horne said. “We think it’s a dangerous ruling, especially because of its implications for the safety of Texas women. ... [But] this is only the first ruling in this specific case.”

Hennessy-Fiske reported from Dallas and La Ganga from Seattle. Times staff writers Cindy Carcamo in Tucson and James Queally in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times


9:00 p.m.: This post was updated throughout.

5:22 p.m.: This post updated with a comment from Wendy Davis.

3:51 p.m. Aug. 29: This post updated with comments from a conservative activist opposed to the ruling.

This post was published at 3:35 p.m.