Texas Abortion Laws Will Close Clinics, Witness Testifies
New Texas laws requiring abortion doctors to have local hospital admitting privileges will likely force clinics to close, compelling women seeking the procedure to travel substantially farther, a trial witness said.
Joseph Potter, a University of Texas demographer, testified for Planned Parenthood yesterday in federal court in Austin, Texas, in a trial over the group’s challenge to the privileges measure and a provision barring anyone except a doctor from administering abortion-inducing drugs.
Clinics that close probably won’t be replaced by new facilities that comply with those abortion-related regulations and others signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on July 18, Potter told U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel.
“My opinion is that is unlikely,” he said. Seventy-six family planning clinics closed after 2011 funding cuts and none of those reopened, Potter said.
Planned Parenthood last month sued to block the hospital affiliation and drug dispensing requirements set to take effect Oct. 29, arguing they unconstitutionally burden women’s rights.
Texas Solicitor General Jonathan F. Mitchell disputed those assertions in his opening statement yesterday, saying the group had no evidence to support its claims and was wrongly trying to shift the burden of proof to the government.
The legislation, Texas House Bill 2, also bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy and, as of Sept. 1, 2014, requires abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Those provisions weren’t challenged in Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit.
“This is an important day for those who support life and for those who support the health of Texas women,” Perry, a Republican, said in a statement announcing he’d signed the legislation.
Debate over the issue in June catapulted to prominence Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, whose filibuster against the bill drew national media coverage.
Davis on Oct. 3 kicked off a bid to be the first Democrat elected governor of the second-biggest U.S. state in area and population since Ann W. Richards in 1990.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a named defendant in the Planned Parenthood case, is seeking the Republican nomination to succeed Perry.
While Planned Parenthood initially sought a preliminary court order blocking the laws, Yeakel on Oct. 8 set the case for a trial before him yesterday on the constitutional issues. Both sides waived their right to a jury.
Yeakel yesterday urged attorneys for both sides to proceed expeditiously, saying the trial’s purpose isn’t to challenge the legality of abortion.
“This court’s job is not to rule on whether women should be allowed abortions,” he said. The issue is whether the challenged legislation falls within “existing constitutional confines or whether it does not.”
The legislation requires a doctor who performs the procedure to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (48 kilometers) of his clinic. It also eliminates the availability of drug-induced abortions after the seventh week of a pregnancy.
Two drugs that will induce an abortion when used in combination are typically taken a day or two apart, according to court papers. The first, Mifepristone -- also known as RU-486 or Mifeprex -- is typically administered by a doctor.
The second, Misoprostol, also called Cytotec, can be taken by a patient at the time and place of her own choosing, a practice that would be ended by the new law, according to Planned Parenthood’s complaint.
The affiliation rule will force one in three health centers currently providing abortions to stop, ending services in six cities, Planned Parenthood said in court papers. The requirement may cause more than 22,000 women a year to be denied access to abortions, the group said.
The 30-mile rule is unjustified because fewer than 0.3 percent of abortions nationwide result in hospitalization, according to Planned Parenthood.
Mitchell, the state’s lawyer, disputed the group’s claims.
“They do not have any evidence, let alone proof, to back up these assertions,” he told Yeakel yesterday.
“The Supreme Court has recognized that the state’s interest in promoting fetal life is present throughout pregnancy,” Mitchell said. “The Constitution allows the state to protect fetal life in this manner, so long as its regulations do not impose an ‘undue burden’ on abortion patients.”
The state hasn’t called any witnesses yet.
“I believe that both of these provisions will harm women - - harm Texas women,” Paul Fine, a Houston doctor who performs the procedures, testified yesterday as Planned Parenthood’s first witness. The rules are “absolutely not” necessary, he said.
He also said restrictions on drug-induced abortions might deprive many women of an alternative to the surgical procedure. For some women who may be at greater risk of complications than others from that surgery, medicine abortions are a reliably safe alternative, Fine said.
“It’s turning the clock back three decades,” the doctor said.
He told the court many Texas hospitals, including those affiliated with religious organizations, will probably refuse to grant privileges to doctors associated with abortion clinics.
Deputy Attorney General John Scott asked Fine during cross-examination if he knew the state had a law barring hospitals and other medical facilities from discriminating against doctors who perform abortions.
Fine said he wasn’t aware of the law.
Potter, the University of Texas professor, identified himself as the lead investigator for the school’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project and said he’d helped compile the study upon which Planned Parenthood based its claim that 22,000 women will lose abortion access under the new law.
Potter also said he supports abortion rights.
During cross-examination by Scott, Potter was unable to answer some questions including the names of at least two Bexar County clinics that would likely close as a result of the new requirements.
Potter said much of the information in the study was gathered by other researchers. His testimony continues today.
“The abortion issue is a big issue in this country,” Yeakel said in opening comments yesterday. “It’s a divisive issue.”
“At the end of the day, these issues” are likely to be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans and the U.S. Supreme Court, Yeakel said. He said he “would be shocked” if the losing parties don’t appeal his decision.
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).
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