Appeals court upholds Texas’ tough abortion rules

03/27/2014 7:22 PM

03/27/2014 10:36 PM

A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld Texas’ tough abortion restrictions that have forced nearly 20 clinics to close, saying the new rules don’t jeopardize women’s health.

A panel of judges at the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court judge who said the rules violate the Constitution and serve no medical purpose. Despite the lower court’s ruling, the appeals court had already allowed some rules to take effect while it considered the case.

The latest decision means that more regulations will begin this year, as scheduled, and sets the case up for a likely appeal to the Supreme Court.

In its opinion, the appeals court said the law “on its face does not impose an undue burden on the life and health of a woman.”

Gov. Rick Perry praised the ruling as “good news for Texas women and the unborn.”

“We will continue to fight for the protection of life and women’s health in Texas,” he said.

Planned Parenthood, which sued to block the law, called the ruling “terrible” and said “safe and legal abortion will continue to be virtually impossible for thousands of Texas women to access.”

“The latest restrictions in Texas will force women to have abortions later in pregnancy, if they are able to get to a doctor at all,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Votes, said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union said that “the law is having a devastating impact on women in Texas, and the court should have struck it down.”

Last summer, Texas lawmakers passed some of the toughest restrictions in the U.S. on when, where and how women can have abortions. The Republican-controlled Legislature required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and placed strict limits on doctors prescribing abortion-inducing pills.

The debate over the law drew thousands of demonstrators on both sides of the issue to the Capitol in Austin and sparked a 12-hour-plus filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who temporarily blocked passage. Though the restrictions later passed overwhelmingly, Davis catapulted to political stardom and is now running for governor.

The office of Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is also running for governor, defended the law in court.

Republican leaders in Texas oppose abortion unless the mother’s life is at risk. In passing the new rules, they argued that they were protecting women’s health.

But abortion-rights supporters called the measures an attempt to effectively ban abortion statewide through overregulation. Many abortion doctors do not have admitting privileges, and limiting when and where they may prescribe abortion-inducing pills discourages women from choosing that option, they say.

Other aspects of the new rules, including a requirement that all procedures take place in a surgical facility, do not take effect until September.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled in October that the provisions place an unconstitutional burden on women’s access to abortion.

Clinics shut down

Three days after Yeakel’s ruling, the 5th Circuit let Texas enforce the law while the state appealed.

Some 19 clinics have shut down since, leaving 24 still open to serve a population of 26 million. More closures could happen after the other restrictions are in place.

Regardless, the Supreme Court will probably have the last word on the restrictions. The court’s four liberal justices have indicated that they are inclined to hear an appeal.

In November, the four dissented from a high court ruling that upheld the 5th Circuit’s decision to allow Texas to enforce the law while the appeal proceeded.

Justice Stephen Breyer called the issue of the law’s constitutionality a difficult question. “It is a question, I believe, that at least four members of this court will wish to consider irrespective of the Fifth Circuit’s ultimate decision,” Breyer wrote in a brief opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Five votes constitute a majority on the court, but it takes only four to grant full review of a lower court’s ruling.

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