Restrictive law could force most Texas abortion clinics to close

Posted Saturday, Jul. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
Abortions in Texas Number of abortions reported in Texas: 2000: 76,121 2001: 77,537 2002: 79,929 2003: 79,166 2004: 75,053 2005: 77,374 2006: 82,056 2007: 81,079 2008: 81,591 2009: 77,850 2010: 77,592 2011: 72,470 Total: 937,818 Source: Texas Department of State Health Services

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Texas lawmakers will soon weigh in on one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, and at the heart of the proposal is banning abortions after 20 weeks.

But the other aspects of the bill — from requiring operating rooms and hallways at clinics to be larger to making sure an abortion facility is within 30 miles of a hospital — could have the most dramatic impact, potentially forcing most abortion clinics in the state to shut their doors.

“Since it’s not possible to eliminate Roe v. Wade right now, the goal is to limit the number of abortions in Texas,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “They are focusing on fetal pain, but the much more consequential part of the legislation is that abortion clinics” will close.

This week, lawmakers will continue work on the measure during the second special session called by Gov. Rick Perry. The first special session ended shortly after a more than 11-hour filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

Hanging in the balance are three dozen licensed health centers in Texas where women may get abortions, as well as other medical services such as family planning and screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.

If the proposal now before the Legislature becomes law, all but a few of those clinics would likely close, leaving facilities only in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, estimates show.

Admittedly, that would be good news, said Kyleen Wright of Mansfield, president of the Texans for Life Coalition.

“I’m against abortion … but I’m also a woman and many, many of my friends have had abortions and confided scary details to me,” Wright said.

“I haven’t been able to talk them all out of abortions, but I still love them and don’t want them to be butchered.”

Women do deserve better, opponents of the bill say — and they deserve better than what this bill will give them.

“The Texas bills are a compilation of overreaching measures to control when, where and how a woman has an abortion,” said Dr. Lisa M. Hollier, Texas district chairwoman of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “The bills would erode women’s health by denying the women of Texas the benefits of well-researched, safe and proven protocols.”

Texas restrictions

State law prohibits abortion in the third trimester, with certain exceptions.

For nearly two decades, the GOP-led Legislature has worked to add restrictions on abortions, initially with parental notification and parental consent measures for underage Texans.

By 2011, legislators had passed a law requiring physicians to perform a sonogram on a woman before an abortion, describe to her what it shows and provide an opportunity for her to hear the fetal heartbeat — all at least 24 hours before the procedure.

“Until the day Roe v. Wade is nothing but a shameful footnote in our nation’s history books, we won’t give up the good fight,” Perry said recently.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, nearly 1 million abortions were performed in Texas from 2000 to 2011, the most recent year with figures available.

The current measure is expected to easily pass the House and Senate because of Republican majorities in each chamber. Efforts to decrease funding for other women’s health services have passed in recent years, although lawmakers did boost funding for programs serving poor women during the last session.

The biggest impact was in 2011, when lawmakers revamped the Texas Women’s Health Program, which provides screenings and birth control to women who lack insurance. That year, they slashed funding for family planning by around 66 percent in the face of a budget shortfall.

Dozens of health centers closed throughout the state, including a Planned Parenthood facility in Arlington.

“In 2011, abortion laws were passed and the public wasn’t aware of what was going on,” said Stacey Edwards, founder of the Bluebonnet Brigade, a group of Texans advocating liberal and progressive causes.

As a result, “many Planned Parenthood facilities, as well as others, had to close their doors,” she said. “Women across the state lost their only source of affordable healthcare, even if they were not seeking an abortion.”

Legislative proposal

The bill before lawmakers would prevent abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Supporters say studies show that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. Opponents say this is just another effort to deny women their constitutional right to have an abortion.

Political observers say the 20-week portion of the bill could be tied up in the courts, especially since a federal court recently struck down a similar ban in Arizona.

That would leave in place various changes that would reduce abortions in the state.

Currently, facilities that provide abortions may be licensed as either an abortion facility or an ambulatory surgical center.

The number of abortion facilities in Texas has fluctuated through the years. The state now has 36 licensed abortion clinics and 421 licensed ambulatory surgical centers, state records show, even though recent summaries of the bill have referred to 42 clinics.

The measure before lawmakers would likely slash that number, requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles and further restricting abortion-inducing drugs such as RU-486.

Women seeking the abortion pill would have to go to a clinic to take the medication on two different days rather than taking the second dose home with them, as they do now. The proposal would also require a follow-up visit within 14 days.

Abortion clinics would also have to meet the standards of an ambulatory surgical center — which would require many facilities to be revamped to meet size requirements for areas such as operating rooms, hallways, ventilation systems and janitors’ closets.

Texans on both sides of the debate say only a few clinics, in the state’s major urban areas, meet those requirements and could stay open, although others may choose to upgrade and not close.

One clinic expected to remain open is the new Planned Parenthood Southwest Fort Worth Health Center, a $6.5 million facility privately funded by North Texans.

Work began years ago to raise money for this licensed ambulatory surgical center, which provides services including family planning and abortions.

Opponents of the bill say many facilities lack the room or the money to expand — especially before the Sept. 1, 2014, deadline — or face zoning issues.

Supporters say improving standards would ensure that patients have the best care possible, even if it does mean that those who update their clinics might need to charge more for abortions.

Hardest hit

Opponents say the bill could remove clinics from much of the state and lead women to cross state lines or seek illegal back-alley abortions.

Supporters say the restrictions will make sure that the only doctors performing abortions in Texas are qualified and fully equipped in case something goes wrong and they need to get a woman to a hospital quickly.

Regarding the drive, “the average distance a woman drives now to an abortion clinic is 42 miles,” said Wright, of Texans for Life. “Those who live in rural areas drive almost that far to go to a grocery store at times. That’s Texas.

“Access [to abortions] under Roe v. Wade doesn’t guarantee there will be a clinic 15 minutes from your home.”

But it is a big deal to some.

“This would hit the hardest women who live in rural areas or low-income women who might not have the financial means to take time off or travel or find healthcare,” said Danielle Wells, assistant director of media relations and communications for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

“The need for safe, legal abortions will not go away if this bill passes,” she said. “What goes away is access to qualified providers.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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