The right to access abortion in the state of Texas took a major step backwards on Thursday.
Just three days after women's rights advocates won a major court battle stopping an anti-abortion law that would force more than a dozen clinics to close, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans removed the lower court's injunction and allowed enforcement of the law to proceed.
The law, House Bill 2, was at the epicenter of the massive protests that swamped the Texas Capitol in Austin last June as state Senator Wendy Davis waged a 13-hour filibuster during an emergency special session called specifically to pass the restrictions. The filibuster was cut short, but just barely, and Democrats were able to use procedural tactics to derail passage until Texas Governor Rick Perry called a second emergency session the following week. Davis is now running for governor.
The unanimous vote by the three-judge panel will result in the closure of 13 women's health clinics statewide, leaving just 23 remaining. Advocates contend this infringes upon a woman's right to access abortion services, as many women in the state live hours away from a clinic and have to endure the substantial burden of visiting twice -- with a 24-hour waiting period between each, and a mandatory, medically-unnecessary sonogram -- before an abortion may be performed or drugs can be administered.
"Today's decision affirms our right to protect both the unborn and the health of the women of Texas," Governor Rick Perry, who has said he wants to make abortion illegal, said in a media advisory. "We will continue doing everything we can to protect a culture of life in our state."
Judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that in permitting enforcement of House Bill 2, their action "may increase the cost of accessing an abortion provider and decrease the number of physicians available to perform abortions." Still, they also noted that the Supreme Court allows states to regulate abortion even in cases where the result is "making it more difficult or more expensive" to access abortion services, provided that the services are still available.
That's opposite of the conclusion reached by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel on Monday, who wrote that requiring abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges "does nothing to further the interest of patient care by improving communication."
He also concluded that the provision "places an 'undue burden' on a woman seeking abortion services in Texas because it necessarily has the effect of presenting a 'substantial obstacle' to access to abortion services."
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor in 2014, filed an emergency appeal with the notoriously anti-abortion Fifth Circuit within hours of Judge Yeakel's ruling. "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," he said in an advisory released Thursday.
"This fight is far from over," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said in a press release. "This restriction clearly violates Texas women's constitutional rights by drastically reducing access to safe and legal abortion statewide. If Texans showed America one thing during the historic protests against this law this summer, we demonstrated that Texans value women's health -- and that is why we will take every step we can to protect the health of Texas women in the wake of this ruling."
Laws similar to Texas's House Bill 2 are currently on hold in four other states: Wisconsin, Mississippi, Alabama and North Dakota, according to The New York Times.
While the Fifth Circuit Court's ruling is not permanent and further arguments will commence in January, the court's decision to remove the injunction is a strong indication that the matter will have to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.
If the conservative-leaning court sides with Texas, it would permit Republican-run states across the nation to significantly curtail access to abortion services for millions of women -- and some, like Mississippi, could eliminate abortion clinics within their borders entirely.
Photo: Flickr user ann harkness, creative commons licensed.