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Sole Clinic in El Paso, Texas, Remains Open Under SCOTUS Order, But Future is Uncertain

Sole Clinic in El Paso, Texas, Remains Open Under SCOTUS Order, But Future is Uncertain

July 6, 2015 — The sole abortion clinic in El Paso, Texas, will remain open at least through the summer under a blocked omnibus antiabortion-rights law (HB 2), but the clinic's owner is concerned that the clinic might shut down after he retires because of the difficulty of hiring a successor, The Guardian reports.

According to The Guardian, El Paso would be the largest city in the U.S. without an abortion clinic if the facility, Hilltop Women's Reproductive Clinic, closes.

Background

The Supreme Court last Monday temporarily blocked provisions in the law that would have shut down Hilltop, along with many other of the state's remaining clinics (Dart, The Guardian, 6/30). The provisions include one that requires abortion clinics in the state to meet the same building standards as ambulatory surgical centers, and another that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Earlier this month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the provisions except in the case of one clinic, Whole Woman's Health in McAllen, Texas. The ruling was scheduled to take effect on July 1. However, the Supreme Court last Monday blocked the ambulatory surgical center requirement until the justices decide whether to hear the clinics' appeal of the lower court ruling. Abortion-rights opponents and supporters currently are assessing whether the order also blocks the admitting privileges requirement.

The high court is not expected to release a decision before the fall. However, the Supreme Court order to block the law indicates that it is likely the justices will agree to review the overall case (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/30).

Hilltop's Future Remains Uncertain

Franz Theard, who runs Hilltop, said, if the law's provisions are upheld, his clinic would have to spend $2 million to upgrade its facilities to comply with the law's building standards requirement. Theard noted that the renovations are not needed for patient safety and that the upgrades might not be possible in the current space, adding, "So we're ready to close, if they're going to enforce" the provisions. Further, Theard said even if the law's provisions are struck down, it might be difficult to find someone to take over running the clinic after his retirement because the political climate in Texas is hostile toward abortion. "When I retire I don't know what's going to happen," he said.

If the clinic closes, El Paso residents would have to travel 550 miles to get to the nearest in-state abortion clinic. The 5th Circuit in upholding parts of the law said women in the area could travel to another clinic in New Mexico, which is 11 miles away and also run by Theard.

However, according The Guardian, reliance on the New Mexico clinic could pose particular difficulties for individuals who have limited resources or who are unable to cross state lines. For example, undocumented immigrants could face difficulties because there is limited public transportation in the area and because border patrol agents are stationed along key roads.

Further, Theard noted that El Paso residents would be without any nearby abortion providers if the Texas law is upheld and he ever has to shut down the New Mexico clinic. "If we decide to close [the New Mexico clinic], then what?" he said, adding, "I think it's a fallacy to say 'Oh, [it's] OK, there's another clinic up there.' It's very frail, very fragile."

Closed Clinics Could Face Difficulty Reopening

Meanwhile, Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, Texas policy director at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, said even if the law is struck down, it will be difficult for clinics that have already been closed to reopen.

"Let's say that we have a longterm victory in the [S]upreme [C]ourt; those clinics that shut down, there's no assurance they'll be able to staff up again, legally wind up again, do everything to license, certify and register the clinic according to the standards," she said, adding, "Once you're closed it takes a lot."

According to The Guardian, El Paso's only other clinic shut down in 2014 (The Guardian, 6/30).