Abortion-rights groups challenge controversial Texas law in federal court Friday

September 27, 2013
Lenell Ripley, second from left, cries as she demonstrates with other abortion rights supporters outside the Capitol auditorium in Austin, Texas, Thursday July 18, 2013. Opponents are now challenging the state's sweeping abortion restrictions, which could shutter most of the clinics in the nation's second-most populous state. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Jay Janner)
Lenell Ripley, second from left, cries as she demonstrates with other abortion-rights supporters outside the Capitol auditorium in Austin, July 18, 2013. Opponents are now challenging the state's sweeping abortion restrictions, which could shutter most of the clinics in the nation's second-most populous state. (Jay Janner/AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman)

More than a dozen abortion providers filed a lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas challenging two key aspects of a controversial Texas antiabortion law, which limits access to both surgical and medication abortions in the state.

The lawsuit seeks to strike down new requirements that abortion doctors must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic and that all abortions must take place in surgical centers, rather than allowing women take abortion medication at home, on the grounds that these restrictions impose an unconstitutional burden on a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.

"If the medication abortion restrictions and admitting privileges requirement are allowed to take effect on October 29, more than one-third of the state’s licensed abortion facilities will be forced to stop offering abortions altogether, eliminating services entirely in Fort Worth, Harlingen, Killeen, Lubbock, McAllen, and Waco," the complaint states. "Other facilities will be forced to decrease the number of abortions they provide."

Noting that "at least 1 in 12 women will have to travel more than 100 miles to obtain abortion care" if the law goes into effect, the complaint adds, "These requirements, individually and taken together, violate the constitutional rights guaranteed to both Plaintiffs and their patients by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution."

The challenge -- lodged on behalf of 10 abortion clinics and three of their doctors -- was jointly filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Texas-based law firm George Brothers Kincaid & Horton.

The lawsuit does not challenge another provision in the law banning abortions after 20 weeks, which enjoys broader public support than other abortion restrictions. That restriction is currently under litigation in federal court in Arizona and state court in Georgia.

"We are challenging the things that have the most drastic effect, the quickest," said Jennifer Dalven, who directs the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, in an interview, adding that the admitting privileges requirement alone could close a third of Texas' 36 abortion clinics.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion political action committee Susan B. Anthony List, accused Planned Parenthood and its allies as "seeking to undo health and safety standards aimed at protecting women."

Elizabeth Graham, executive director of Texas Right to Life, said the fact that the groups are not challenging the 20-week ban shows "the abortion industry is signaling some major losses when House Bill 2 is properly implemented."

Dalven said advocates may challenge another provision of the Texas law, requiring clinics to undertake costly building upgrades to put them in compliance with other ambulatory surgical clinics, but those regulations will not take effect until September 2014 and have not been finalized.

"This isn’t the end of the story," she said.

The fight over Texas's abortion law garnered widespread attention this summer, when state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) waged a lengthy filibuster that temporarily blocked the bill's passage. Davis ultimately failed from keeping the proposal from becoming law, but she has capitalized on the publicity surrounding that fight to lay the groundwork for a gubernatorial bid in Texas, which she plans to formally launch Oct. 3.

Abortion opponents are gaining ground across the country, passing a slew of measures imposing new requirements on abortion providers and banning the procedure earlier on in a woman's pregnancy.

"Politicians are interfering with the personal medical decisions of women who already have the least access to birth control and preventive health care," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.

Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, who is named in the lawsuit, could not be reached immediately for comment Friday morning.

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Aaron Blake | September 27, 2013