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Appeals court lifts injunction on Texas abortion law

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HOUSTON - A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in New Orleans lifted an injunction Thursday mostly allowing the state’s new abortion restrictions to take effect.

The decision came three days after a federal judge in Texas blocked some of the restrictions that he found unconstitutional, including a provision requiring doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and limits on medication-induced abortions.

But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel sided with state officials who asked for an emergency stay so that the new law could take effect pending a final decision.

The panel found the state offered ample evidence that the admitting privileges requirement protected women’s health.

“The district court’s conclusion that a state has no rational basis for requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital is but one step removed from repudiating the longstanding recognition by the [U.S.] Supreme Court that a state may constitutionally require that only a physician may perform an abortion,” Circuit Judge Priscilla R. Owen wrote, citing a Montana law that says only licensed physicians can perform abortions.

She wrote that the Texas judge's limits on medication abortions were "broader than necessary," and added a small exception when lifting the injunction to allow the procedure for women who are only a couple months pregnant when a doctor determines that "due to a physical abnormality or preexisting condition of the mother, a surgical abortion is not a safe and medically sound option for her."

Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott issued a statement praising the ruling.

“This unanimous decision is a vindication of the careful deliberation by the Texas Legislature to craft a law to protect the health and safety of Texas women,” Abbott said.

Supporters of the new law were also encouraged.

“We’re thrilled at the action and that the 5th Circuit finds likely merits to the case,” said Emily Horne, a legislative associate at Houston-based Texas Right to Life.

In their appeal for a stay, Abbott and other state officials had called the Texas judge's ruling "overbroad" and asked the appeals court to rule Tuesday so the new restrictions could take effect as scheduled. They also asked the court to expedite the overall appeal and hear the case at their next sitting in January, which the appeals court also ordered Thursday.

Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers had sued to block the abortion restrictions, passed by the state Legislature last summer, and convinced U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin that the admitting privileges requirement would force many clinics to close, leaving thousands of women without access to abortion services.

In Thursday’s order, Owen stressed that the panel was not ruling on the law itself, and acknowledged the possibility “that requiring all physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital may increase the cost of accessing an abortion provider and decrease the number of physicians available to perform abortions," noting that "Planned Parenthood has also made a strong showing that their interests would be harmed by staying the injunction."

The new restrictions drew national attention this summer when state Sen. Wendy Davis staged a day-long filibuster initially blocking them in June. Davis, a Democrat, is also running for governor, as is Abbott, a Republican.

The filibuster forced Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is retiring, to call a second special legislative session, in which the Republican-controlled legislature eventually passed the law.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, traveled to Austin during the filibuster and issued a statement Thursday reiterating her opposition to the new law.

“This restriction clearly violates Texas women’s constitutional rights by drastically reducing access to safe and legal abortion statewide.  If Texans showed America one thing during the historic protests against this law this summer, we demonstrated that Texans value women’s health — and that is why we will take every step we can to protect the health of Texas women in the wake of this ruling,” said Richards, the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.

Opponents blocked similar requirements for admitting privileges in Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota and Wisconsin. State courts in North Dakota and Oklahoma struck down restrictions on medication abortion.

Mississippi passed a similar law last year and faced similar legal challenges. After a federal judge blocked the law pending a trial in March, the state’s attorney general asked the 5th Circuit to lift a temporary stay and allow the law to be enforced in the interim, but they refused.

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