Texas Abortion Doctor Restriction Upheld by Appeals Court

Texas can require abortion doctors to affiliate with local hospitals, although it can’t enforce the ban while doctors apply for those rights, an appeals court said, overturning a federal judge’s finding that the measure places an unconstitutional burden on women seeking to end pregnancies.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin struck down the provision in October, finding it “does not bear a rational relationship to the legitimate right of the state in preserving and promoting fetal life or a woman’s health.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans in November delayed enforcement of Yeakel’s judgment pending an appeal and reversed his decision today.

The Texas measure is one of more than 200 abortion restrictions passed nationwide since a Republican-led state-legislative push began in 2011. More state abortion restrictions were passed during that time than in the entire previous decade, according to a Jan. 2 report by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights advocacy organization.

Nearby Hospitals

“It is not the courts’ duty to second guess legislative fact-finding, ‘improve’ on, or ‘cleanse’ the legislative process by allowing relitigation of the facts that led to the passage of a law,” U.S. Circuit Judge Edith H. Jones wrote in a 34-page opinion stating the lower-court judge used the wrong legal standard in evaluating the restrictions. “Courts must presume that the law in question is valid” as long as it serves a “legitimate” state goal.

The court’s earlier ruling, putting Yeakel’s decision on hold, spurred Texas clinics to stop abortions and sent doctors scurrying to acquire credentials from nearby hospitals. Abortion rights advocates, who contended the law restricted the rights of women seeking to end pregnancies, had asked the appeals court to uphold the lower court and immediately overturn the hospital affiliation mandate.

The laws have forced dozens of clinics to close or stop offering the procedure while opponents pursued legal battles to reverse them. In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago ordered that Wisconsin’s law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (48 kilometers) remain blocked. The Texas law imposed the same requirement.

Chip Away

Parallel cases are proceeding in North Dakota, Alabama and Mississippi. Any conflicting rulings that emerge from those and other cases may eventually be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court as abortion-rights opponents seek to chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that women have a right to abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb.

Opponents of the Texas law said at least a third of the state’s licensed providers were forced to stop offering abortions once the privileges requirement took effect in November. They claimed large swaths of south and west Texas would be left without abortion providers, forcing women to travel more than 100 miles to obtain the procedure.

“This is an extremely disappointing day for Texas women, especially those living in rural and poor areas most harmed by this politically motivated law,” Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in an e-mailed statement. The law “does nothing to protect women’s health,” she said, while “it severely limits women’s medical options.”

Unanimous Decision

State officials said the law was passed “to promote the health and safety of abortion patients and to advance the state’s interest in protecting fetal life.”

The provision, part of a larger piece of legislation called HB2 passed in July, “ensures that all Texas women seeking abortions will be treated by a physician who can ensure the highest standards of care in case of a medical emergency,” Texas told the appellate court.

“This unanimous 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,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican candidate for governor, said in an e-mailed statement. Abbott noted that all three of the appellate judges who upheld the measure are women who agreed with Texas that the restrictions will protect abortion patients’ health.

‘Terrible’ Ruling

Abbott was sued by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU on behalf of clinics and abortion providers last year.

Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood Votes, said the New Orleans appellate court has “repeatedly upheld laws that impose medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion” and the three-judge panel that issued the opinion includes a judge “who is openly hostile to Roe v. Wade.”

“This is a terrible court ruling that will severely limit a woman’s access to safe and legal abortion in Texas,” Richards said in an e-mailed statement. The organization’s “separate political arm will mobilize voters to replace lawmakers who champion these dangerous laws in the first place,” she said, singling out Abbott.

Texas lawmakers passed restrictions on the use of abortion-inducing drugs along with the local hospital admitting-privileges requirement. The trial judge declined to void the state’s ability to enforce the drug limits, except where they would place an undue burden on a woman if a doctor determined the abortion was necessary to preserve her life or health.

The appeals court today threw out Yeakel’s exception, and allowed Texas to “shorten the window” during which abortion-inducing drugs are permitted.

The case is Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas Surgical Health Services v. Abbott, 13-cv-00862, U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas (Austin). The appeal is Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas Surgical Health Services v. Abbott, 13-51008, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (New Orleans).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE