In a big win for abortion rights — not to mention common sense — a federal judge on Monday gutted a portion of a new Texas law that would have forced the closure of many abortion clinics by requiring their doctors to have unnecessary admitting privileges with local hospitals.
The ostensible point of the law, House Bill 2, versions of which have been successfully challenged in several other abortion-unfriendly states, is to make the procedure safer for women. That's disingenuous. First-trimester abortions are extremely safe. Laws like these are part of the religious right's never-ending strategy to restrict access to abortion in order to end it.
This was the law that made a celebrity out of Texas' Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis after she filibustered it for 13 hours in June. She's since announced she's running for the Democratic nomination for governor. Presumably, she'll face Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, a defendant on the losing side of this case, which was brought by the ACLU, Planned Parenthood of Texas, the Center for Reproductive Rights and some Texas abortion clinic owners.
In his 26-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel said the law was unconstitutional, as it put an undue burden on women exercising their unrestrictable right to first-trimester abortions.
Also, he concluded, it was completely unnecessary.
Any woman experiencing post-abortion complications would go to her local emergency room for treatment, he said. During a three-day, non-jury trial, a physician testified that ER doctors confronting a critical medical situation would never concern themselves with whether a patient's physician had admitting privileges.
The judge also noted some other potentially absurd results of the law: For instance, in order to gain admitting privileges, many hospitals require doctors to have a certain number of admissions per year. But abortion is such a low-risk procedure that doctors who perform it might never be able to satisfy that requirement because early abortion is so safe.
As for what Yeakel called the state's "optimism" that clinics could comply with the law by simply hiring physicians who already have hospital admitting privileges, they just aren't out there. Doctors' contracts often forbid them from moonlighting as abortion providers. Others worry about antiabortion protesters ruining their private practices.
Unfortunately, the judge upheld a portion of the law that makes it more difficult than necessary for Texas women to have "medication abortions" with the drug RU 486. The law says doctors must use outdated FDA guidelines, which require higher doses and more doctor visits than have been found necessary. Yeakel admitted the process was "more imposing and unpleasant" than it needed to be, but not unconstitutional.
Having spent so much time reporting both sides of the abortion debate, I appreciate the opening passage of Judge Yeakel's opinion, a brutally honest assessment of an enduring American struggle:
"Today there is no issue that divides the people of this country more than abortion. It is the most divisive issue to face this country since slavery. When compared with the intensity, emotion, and depth of feeling expressed with regard to abortion, the recent arguments on affordable healthcare, increasing the debt ceiling, and closing the government retreat to near oblivion.
"Sincere and caring persons of good will are found on both sides of the issue, but neither side will ever change the position of the other. Legislatures and courts will continue to be confounded by the issue for the foreseeable future. No ruling of this court will sway the opinion regarding abortion held by anyone. And, indeed, that is not the role of this court. The court may not and will not decide whether there should be abortions in Texas. This court is charged only with determining whether certain provisions of House Bill 2 are consistent with the Constitution of the United States under existing Supreme Court precedent."
States like Texas, whose officials say they have already appealed this ruling, must stop trying to skirt the law of the land with these incessant attacks on a woman's right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Abortion may be a tough topic, and painful for many. But it's the law of the land, and it's going to remain that way for the foreseeable future.