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Appeals court allows law that would shut three of Louisiana’s four abortion clinics

Protesters stand with signs along the street in front of Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas on Oct. 28, 2013.  EPA/LARRY W. SMITH

An appeals court in Louisiana on Wednesday issued an emergency order that abortion rights groups say will result in the closure of three of the state’s four existing abortion clinics.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that a 2014 state law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have special relationships with local hospitals may go into effect as a legal challenge against it works its way through the courts. In January, a lower court had temporarily blocked the law.

The law is similar to a regulation being challenged in Texas as part of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a case that will be argued before the Supreme Court next week. It requires doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where they practice, permitting them to treat patients there.

Supporters of such laws say they protect women who might experience complications during an abortion procedure that require hospitalization. Critics, however, say it is virtually impossible for doctors to obtain such privileges.

The doctors often live too far away or admit too few patients to qualify, they say, and oftentimes hospitals are reluctant to enter into such relationships with physicians who specialize in such a controversial procedure.

They accuse supporters of such laws of seeking to dramatically curb access to legal abortion under the guise of women’s health and safety.

Abortion rights groups immediately condemned Wednesday’s ruling, with the Center for Reproductive Rights pledging to appeal it to the Supreme Court.

“Today’s ruling thrusts Louisiana into a reproductive health care crisis, where women will face limited safe and legal options when they’ve made the decision to end a pregnancy,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

Abortion foes, meanwhile, lauded the decision. “Abortionists shouldn’t be given a free pass to elude medical requirements that everyone else is required to follow,” Steven H. Aden, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposes abortion, said in a statement. He added that the measure provides “common-sense protections that ensure the maximum amount of safety for women.”

Groups said two clinics will immediately close as a result of Wednesday’s decision, one in Bossier City and another in Baton Rouge. Doctors there have not been able to obtain hospital privileges. Two other clinics, in Shreveport and New Orleans, share a doctor who does have the necessary privileges. But it is expected that one of the two will have to close down.