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Judge blocks key parts of Texas abortion law

Austin American StatesmanOctober 28, 2013Articles

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s opinion found that a provision requiring abortion doctors to gain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital “does not bear a rational relationship to the legitimate right of the state in preserving and promoting fetal life or a woman’s health.”  Yeakel also blocked Texas from enforcing a provision regulating the dispensing of abortion-inducing drugs.

According to testimony presented in a trial last week before Yeakel, requiring abortion doctors to get admitting privileges in a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic will force 13 of the state’s 32 abortion facilities to close Tuesday.

Doctors had difficulty meeting hospital requirements for privileges, which vary between facilities but often require doctors to live in the community, admit a minimum number of patients per year or be board certified in an area of specialization.

Many abortion doctors travel to several clinics or do not have practices designed to divert patients to the hospital, witnesses told Yeakel. The doctors also tend to be at or near retirement and lack board certification, which had not been necessary or available for their practices, abortion providers testified.

Abortion providers also complained that the law did not give them enough time. Hospitals have 170 days to rule on a request for privileges, but the law was to go into effect 90 days after the special legislative session ended in July.

In his ruling, Yeakel said the rule “places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus and is thus an undue burden to her.”

The case next heads to federal appeals court, where abortion-related Texas laws have recently prevailed:

  • In August 2012, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Texas could expel Planned Parenthood from the Women’s Health Program, which provides health and contraceptive care for low-income Texans. The New Orleans-based appeals court overturned an injunction issued by Yeakel, who had found that the regulations violated Planned Parenthood’s rights of free speech and association.

    The health program did not pay for abortions, and participating Planned Parenthood clinics did not perform the procedure. But because the organization is the nation’s leading provider of abortions and is a vocal advocate for abortion rights, Gov. Rick Perry and Republicans in the Legislature have worked to cut off its state money.

  • The appeals court ruled in January 2012 that Texas can require a pre-abortion sonogram in hopes that the information it provides would dissuade some women from getting an abortion. The ruling overturned an injunction from U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin, who had found that the law violated the First Amendment by improperly requiring doctors and patients to engage in government-mandated speech.

The state’s latest abortion regulations, known as House Bill 2, were passed in July during the second of two contentious special legislative sessions.

One provision of the law, a ban on abortions at 20 weeks post-fertilization, was not challenged and will take effect Tuesday. The limit, with exceptions if the mother’s life is in danger and in cases of severe fetal abnormality, is four weeks earlier than current law.

Another HB 2 provision, requiring abortion clinics meet the same requirements as day surgery centers, does not take effect until Sept. 1, 2014 and is expected to be challenged in court in the future.

Yeakel was nominated to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush after serving five years on the state’s 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin as a Republican.

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