Abortion-rights advocates are asking the Supreme Court to temporarily block enforcement of a Texas law that has forced the closure of 34 of the state's 41 licensed abortion facilities.
Because of the law, critics say more than 900,000 Texas women of reproductive age now live more than 150 miles from a licensed abortion facility. The impact is most severe among low-income women who find it hardest to travel, they said.
"Women in the Rio Grande Valley, along Texas' southern border with Mexico, now face a 400 to 500 mile round trip to obtain a legal abortion," lawyers for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights said in an emergency appeal to the high court Tuesday.
More than 20 years ago, the Supreme Court said states may regulate abortion to protect the health of women, but they may not put an "undue burden" on those who seek to end an early pregnancy.
Justices have not yet defined what amounts to an "undue burden" on these women.
On Aug. 29, a federal judge in Texas, citing the "undue burden," put on hold two provisions of the law. One requires licensed clinics to have physicians with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The second requires clinics to meet the standards of an "ambulatory surgical center."
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel described the provisions as a "brutally effective system of abortion regulation" that will have a harmful impact on women.
Last Thursday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans lifted the order on a 2-1 vote. Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod said the "Texas legislature's stated purpose was to improve patient safety," and "courts are not permitted to second-guess a legislature's stated purposes absent clear and compelling evidence."
She said the law would not affect "a large fraction" of the population because many affected women could drive to a major city for the procedure.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the Supreme Court should put the law on hold while the appeals move forward. Otherwise, the clinics will go out of business and are unlikely to reopen.
This "is a dire emergency in need of an immediate response," she said.
The emergency appeal went to Justice Antonin Scalia on Tuesday. He oversees claims from the 5th Circuit, but he is likely refer it to the full court.
This is the second time the Texas law has come to the high court. In November, justices split 5-4 and refused to block the provision that required clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, clearing the way for the law to take effect while legal challenges were pressed.