Abortion clinics in Texas scrambled Friday to contact women who were planning to obtain the procedure this weekend, informing them that they had to cancel or reschedule in light of a decision by a panel of federal judges that led to the abrupt closure of 13 clinics across the state late Thursday.
The clinics were unable to comply with a provision of state law, which had been on hold, requiring abortion clinics to meet equipment and building standards qualifying them as ambulatory surgical centers. The provision had been blocked by a lower court but went into effect Thursday after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that the law could be enforced as written.
Staff at clinics in McAllen and Fort Worth immediately began calling patients and doctors to let them know the facilities would no longer be able to provide abortion services, but workers could not reach everyone, said Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates the two clinics.
As a result, women were showing up at the McAllen clinic Friday only to be told that they would have to go to San Antonio, about 250 miles away, she said. The McAllen clinic had between 35 and 40 abortions scheduled for the weekend, and the Fort Worth clinic had 70 to 100.
“We are doing our best to do counseling and lab work and ultrasounds and help them travel north to San Antonio,” she said. “We’re doing our best to really figure out how to remain open as almost like a safe house kind of place.”
It is the second wave of clinic closures in Texas, which last year passed a wide-ranging law that imposes new restrictions on abortion providers and clinics. The controversial law, known as HB2, grabbed national headlines when state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) — now a candidate for governor — mounted a filibuster that derailed it temporarily.
Davis’s Republican opponent in the gubernatorial race, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, has been a staunch backer of the law.
“This decision is a vindication of the careful deliberation by the Texas Legislature to craft a law to protect the health and safety of Texas women,” Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said in a statement shortly after the ruling was handed down.
Many clinics have closed rather than try to comply with aspects of HB2, which they said were costly and in some cases impossible to meet. As a result, the sprawling state, which last year had 40 abortion clinics, is now down to seven or eight.
Legal battles over similar restrictions are taking place across the country, and it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will weigh in on whether the laws violate women’s constitutionally protected right to obtain an abortion.
“Texas is part of a concerted effort across the nation by politicians who want to hollow out the protections of Roe v. Wade,” the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationally, said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is participating in the legal fight in Texas. She called the Texas law the most burdensome restriction on women’s access to abortion in 22 years.
“The Supreme Court will have to resolve this issue. . . . if the protections of Roe v. Wade are to retain any meaning at all,” she said.
The panel’s decision brought an avalanche of praise from antiabortion groups, which contend that if clinics are closing, it is only because the facilities cannot meet common-sense safety standards.
“These health and safety standards close no clinics,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, the group that developed the model legislation on which the laws in Texas and others states are based. “Instead, clinics close when they refuse to offer women minimally acceptable care, which happens all too often. They choose to close when they choose to subject women and their unborn children to their profit-focused, dangerous practices.”
Abortion rights groups counter that the restrictive standards are not necessary because abortions are so safe, and that the laws’ true purpose is to curb access to the procedure.
The decision follows a number of courtroom victories for abortion rights advocates in Mississippi and Alabama, where judges at least temporarily blocked aspects of similar laws. Attorneys with the Center for Reproductive Rights said they planned to appeal the ruling and would pursue other legal avenues to get the clinics reopened.
The Supreme Court will likely consider, this year or next, at least some of the restrictions enacted around the country. Among the first to be taken up are laws passed in Texas and 10 other states requiring abortion doctors to have special privileges to admit patients at local hospitals, a standard that abortion clinics have found particularly difficult to meet.
The question for the courts is whether the restrictions put an undue burden on women seeking abortions. Lower courts so far have considered a number of factors, including how far women must travel to obtain the procedure, what percentage of the state’s women are put at a disadvantage by the rules, and how many clinics are left in a state.
Reproductive rights groups have argued that there is no question that the Texas regulations, which have left vast swaths of the state without an abortion provider, pose on undue burden because some women must now travel hundreds of miles to obtain the procedure.
“Availability of abortion services in the state of Texas have reduced by 80 percent,” said Stephanie Toti, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “If that’s not a substantial obstacle, I can’t imagine what a substantial obstacle would be.”
But the 5th-Circuit panel concluded that it was not an undue burden on women to travel 150 miles or more to obtain the procedure. And it found that the abortion providers did not show that the law would adversely affect a “large fraction” of women seeking abortions in the state.