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Supreme Court Halts Parts of Texas Antiabortion-Rights Law, Allowing Clinics To Resume Services

Supreme Court Halts Parts of Texas Antiabortion-Rights Law, Allowing Clinics To Resume Services

October 15, 2014 — The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued a stay on parts of a Texas antiabortion-rights law (HB 2), allowing more than a dozen abortion facilities in the state to reopen while court challenges continue, the Washington Post reports (Barnes, Washington Post, 10/14).

The high court's order reverses rulings by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Specifically, the justices placed a hold on a provision that requires abortion clinics in Texas to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers and exempted abortion facilities in El Paso and McAllen from a provision that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals (Bravin, Wall Street Journal, 10/14).

Background

The Supreme Court order is the latest step in a string of rulings on HB 2 that have placed the availability of abortion services in flux throughout much of Texas (Rosenthal, Texas Tribune, 10/14).

In March, a three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit said that the admitting privileges provision -- as well as a separate provision restricting medication abortion --- could take effect statewide. The full 5th Circuit earlier this month rejected a request from abortion clinic lawyers for an en banc review of the panel's decision (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/10).

Meanwhile, in August, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel barred enforcement of the ambulatory surgical centers provision statewide and the admitting privileges provision as it applies to the El Paso and McAllen clinics (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/2).

However, the 5th Circuit earlier this month lifted the hold on the ambulatory surgical centers provision, which was originally scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1. Thirteen clinics were forced to close immediately to comply with the ruling. The Center for Reproductive Rights then filed an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court on the clinics' behalf.

The 5th Circuit's ruling also meant that about 750,000 women of reproductive age, most of whom live in West Texas and near the Texas-Mexico border, were more than 200 miles away from the nearest abortion facility, according to abortion clinic lawyers (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/14).

Details on Tuesday's Decision

The Supreme Court order was unsigned and did not include an explanation for the justices' decision. The ruling noted that Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas opposed the stay, which implies that Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor likely were in favor of the decision, according to the Post (Washington Post, 10/14).

The ruling will allow the 13 clinics to reopen as soon as Wednesday, according to CRR, which is leading the challenge to the law. Although the Supreme Court blocked enforcement for now, the justices did not rule on the merits of the case.

Next Steps

The 5th Circuit is now expected to rule on the merits of the ambulatory surgical centers provision, according to Politico.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs could appeal the 5th Circuit's admitting privileges ruling to the Supreme Court (Haberkorn, Politico, 10/14). Last fall, the high court declined an emergency request to intervene in that case, but comments by Breyer in a dissent suggested he believes the court's eventual review of the provision is likely, according to the New York Times.

Reaction

CRR President and CEO Nancy Northup said in a statement that although "clinics across the state will be allowed to reopen and provide women with safe and legal abortion care in their own communities," the "fight against Texas' sham abortion law is not over" (Liptak, New York Times, 10/14).

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards said, "We're seeing the terrible impact these restrictions have on thousands of Texas women who effectively no longer have access to safe and legal abortion. We're relieved that the court stepped in to stop this, and we hope this dangerous law is ultimately overturned completely" (Politico, 10/14).

A spokesperson for the state attorney general's office said it "will continue to defend the law, just as we defend all state laws when they are challenged in court" (New York Times, 10/14). Greg Abbott, the current state attorney general, is also the Republican candidate for governor, facing state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), who drew national attention last year for her filibuster that helped stall HB 2 from becoming law (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/3).

LA Times: Supreme Court Must Stop State Abortion Restrictions

In a related editorial, the Los Angeles Times argues that laws like Texas' HB 2 often "arrive cloaked in encomiums about protecting women's health, when in fact they are intended to do one thing only: to make it more difficult, and in some cases almost impossible, to get an abortion."

The Times adds, "These relentless attacks on abortion are destined to continue until the Supreme Court steps in and rules definitively. It should take up these challenges to its authority and put a stop to this growing patchwork of bad, restrictive laws" (Los Angeles Times, 10/14).