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Supreme Court Allows Texas Abortion Clinics to Stay Open

New York TimesOctober 14, 2014Articles

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed more than a dozen Texas abortion clinics to reopen, blocking a state law that had imposed strict requirements on abortion providers. Had the law been allowed to stand, it would have caused all but eight of the state’s abortion clinics to close and would have required many women to travel more than 150 miles to the nearest abortion provider.

The Supreme Court’s order — five sentences long and with no explanation of the justices’ reasoning — represents an interim step in a legal fight that is far from over. But abortion rights advocates welcomed what they said was the enormous practical impact of the move. Had the clinics been forced to remain closed while appeals went forward, they said, they might never have reopened.

State officials said the law’s requirements were needed to protect women’s health. Abortion providers said the regulations were expensive, unnecessary and a ruse meant to put many of them out of business.

The justices addressed two parts of the Texas law that the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had provisionally let stand while it considered an appeal.

One of them required all abortion clinics in the state to meet the standards for “ambulatory surgical centers,” including regulations concerning buildings, equipment and staffing. The other required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

The Supreme Court, in an unsigned order apparently reflecting the views of six justices, blocked the surgical-center requirement entirely and the admitting-privileges requirement as it applied to clinics in McAllen, Tex., and El Paso.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. said they would have allowed the law to be enforced.

Abortion rights advocates praised the order.

“Tomorrow, 13 clinics across the state will be allowed to reopen and provide women with safe and legal abortion care in their own communities,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, adding that advocates were still pursuing appeals. “This fight against Texas’ sham abortion law is not over.”

The appeals court’s decision had left only eight clinics open in Texas, all clustered in metropolitan regions in the eastern part of the state. No abortion facilities were operating west or south of San Antonio.

“If the stay entered by the Fifth Circuit is not vacated,” lawyers with the Center for Reproductive Rights told the Supreme Court, “the clinics forced to remain closed during the appeals process will likely never reopen.”

The appeals court’s ruling, the center’s brief said, meant that “over 900,000 Texas women of reproductive age, more than a sixth of all such women in Texas, now reside more than 150 miles from the nearest Texas abortion provider, up from 86,000 prior to the enactment of the challenged act.”

In response, Greg Abbott, Texas’ attorney general and the Republican candidate for governor, told the justices that “it is undisputed that the vast majority of Texas residents (more than 83 percent) still live within a comfortable driving distance (150 miles)” of an abortion clinic in compliance with the law. Others live in parts of the state, he said, that did not have nearby clinics in the first place.

Those in the El Paso area, Mr. Abbott continued, could obtain abortions across the state line in New Mexico.

The appeals court, drawing on the Supreme Court’s last major abortion decision, said the law’s challengers had not shown that a “large fraction” of women seeking abortions would face an unconstitutional burden thanks to the law.

The law in question, which includes some of the nation’s toughest abortion restrictions, was enacted last year by the Republican-led Legislature. Before it came into force, 41 medical practices were licensed to provide abortions in Texas.

The law was passed after a marathon filibuster that turned a Democratic state senator, Wendy Davis, into a national political star and set the stage for her campaign for governor against Mr. Abbott.

“The court recognized that these deeply personal decisions should be made by a woman with the guidance of her family and her doctor,” Ms. Davis said Tuesday night in a statement. “The actions by Austin politicians like Greg Abbott had closed all but eight Texas reproductive health centers and harmed the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of women throughout the state.”

In August, Judge Lee Yeakel of the Federal District Court in Austin ruled that the surgical-center rule imposed an unconstitutional burden on women seeking abortions. The number and location of the clinics it would effectively close, the judge wrote, burdened the exercise of a constitutional right for many women “just as drastically as a complete ban on abortion.”

On Tuesday, Yvonne Gutierrez, the executive director of Planned Parenthood’s Texas political action committee, said the Supreme Court’s action was a rebuke to Mr. Abbott.

“Today the Supreme Court ruled that Greg Abbott cannot force nearly a million Texas women to drive over 300 miles to access their constitutionally protected right to safe and legal abortion,” Ms. Gutierrez said, adding that the justices had rejected his contention that the law created a “manageable inconvenience.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Abbott, Lauren Bean, said on Tuesday night, “The attorney general’s office will continue to defend the law, just as we defend all state laws when they are challenged in court.”

Last November, the Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 ruling, rejected a request to intercede in a separate case challenging the law, one that centered on the admitting-privileges requirement. In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said he expected the Supreme Court to agree to hear an appeal in that case regardless of how the Fifth Circuit ultimately ruled.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld the admitting-privileges requirement in March. On Thursday, the full Fifth Circuit refused, 12 to 3, to reconsider that ruling. In light of Justice Breyer’s comment, Supreme Court review of the admitting-privileges case appears likely.

Manny Fernandez contributed reporting from Dallas, and Erik Eckholm from New York.

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