A divided U.S. Supreme Court blocked Texas from enforcing its new restrictions on abortion clinics, giving a reprieve to about 10 facilities that were facing closure by July 1.
The order, issued on a 5-4 vote, will last at least until the high court decides whether to hear arguments in the case. Abortion-rights advocates say the rules would unconstitutionally deprive women of access to services by forcing more than half of Texas’s 19 clinics to close and leaving no facilities in the western half of the state.
The one-page order didn’t give any reasoning. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s four Democratic appointees in the majority.
The provisions would force clinics to meet hospital-like surgical standards and require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Texas says the rules safeguard patient safety. Opponents say the real aim is to reduce access to abortion.
“The justices have preserved Texas women’s few remaining options for safe and legal abortion care for the moment,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said delaying the rules subjects women to “substandard care.”
“The highest court in our country just put Texas women in harm’s way,” Paxton said in a statement.
The order hints that the high court will take up the clinic’s appeal in the nine-month term that starts in October. The court hasn’t ruled on abortion rights since 2007, when a 5-4 decision upheld a federal ban on a procedure that opponents called “partial-birth abortion.”
Kennedy’s vote to block the Texas restrictions may be a good sign for abortion-rights advocates because he is the court’s swing vote on the issue. He was in the majority in the 2007 case and in a 1992 ruling that reaffirmed the constitutional right to abortion access. The 1992 ruling said states can’t place an “undue burden” on the right of women to end a pregnancy.
The Supreme Court has now intervened twice to halt some of the Texas rules. The court ordered the state to stop enforcing some of its restrictions in October, clearing the way for clinics to reopen.
A New Orleans-based federal appeals court then largely upheld the restrictions, saying the state’s interest in patient safety outweighed the inconvenience to those women who would have to travel long distances. Among other factors, the court pointed to the availability of a clinic near El Paso in New Mexico.
Texas had more than 40 licensed clinics before the Republican-controlled legislature passed the law in 2013. The measure has taken effect in stages. Most of the remaining clinics are in the four biggest metropolitan areas -- Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin.