A U.S. district judge in Texas has invalidated a key component of the state's highly-restrictive anti-abortion law, declaring it an undue burden on women seeking to terminate a pregnancy, and thereby unconstitutional.
Planned Parenthood filed suit in September against this law, which came to national attention over the summer when State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered it and a throng of pro-choice activists jammed the capitol.
The law required that doctors who perform abortions have hospital admitting privileges in the event of a patient emergency -- which almost never happens due to advances in medical technology.
The law would have forced dozens of the state's remaining women's health clinics to shut down, leaving more than 25 million citizens with only a handful of clinics that offer abortion. It was scheduled to take effect on Tuesday, before today's last-minute ruling.
In a ruling issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that requiring abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges "is without rational basis and places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus."
The judge added:
"A lack of admitting privileges on the part of an abortion provider is of no consequence when a patient presents at a hospital emergency room. By law, no hospital can refuse to provide emergency care. The evidence reflects that emergency-room physicians treat patients of physicians with admitting privileges no differently than patients of physicians without admitting privileges. Admitting privileges make no difference in the quality of care received by any abortion patient in an emergency room, and abortion patients are treated the same as all other patients who present to an emergency room." "The court concludes that whether an abortion provider has admitting privileges does nothing to further the interest of patient care by improving communication. Nor does it impact the timeliness of care in the emergency room, where the nature of the practice is to treat patients with all possible haste." ... "Should there be a rational basis, however, the provision still fails, as the court also concludes that Planned Parenthood has met its burden of demonstrating that the hospital-admitting-privileges provision of the act 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."
Planned Parenthood also challenged a part of the law which requires the abortion medications mifepristone and misoprostol to be administered in a facility equipped to deal with a medical emergency, such as excessive internal bleeding -- another rarity in the women's health field. It is abundantly common for these drugs to be prescribed and taken at home, along with an antibiotic that prevents sepsis, the one potentially life-threatening condition that can arise from a medication abortion.
While noting that no deaths have been reported from administering the abortion medication at home, and that most doctors prefer women to take the drug in the comfort of their own home, the judge did not strike that provision down, saying it does not violate the Constitution by placing an undue burden on a woman seeking abortion, and noting that the law merely requires an outdated FDA guideline be followed to the letter.
Still, Judge Yeakel clearly outlined why women and doctors prefer the off-label protocol over the FDA's guidelines for medically induced miscarraiges, writing:
"The court finds that the FDA protocol is assuredly more imposing and unpleasant for the woman, requiring at least one additional visit to a clinic and allowing less control over the timing and convenience of the medically induced miscarriage. It also requires more of the physician's time, as the physician must administer the second dose. The FDA protocol is also marginally more expensive, due to the increased dosage, notwithstanding any additional cost of travel, time off work, and childcare. More importantly, the FDA protocol removes medication abortion as an option for any woman who discovers she is pregnant or decides to terminate a pregnancy after 49 days... Taken as a whole, the FDA protocol is clearly more burdensome to a woman than the off-label protocol."
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has made itself clear on this matter: the states have the right to regulate abortion and place limitations on the procedure, so long as "reasonable alternative procedures" exist. And in striking down the provision requiring doctors have hospital admitting privileges, Judge Yeakel ensured that, at least for now, those alternatives continue to exist for Texas women.
"Today's ruling marks an important victory for Texas women and sends a clear message to lawmakers: it is unconstitutional for politicians to pass laws that take personal, private decisions away from women and their doctors," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in an advisory. "While this ruling protects access to safe and legal abortion for women in many parts of the state, part of this ruling will make it impossible for many women to access medication abortion, which is safe and effective early in pregnancy. Planned Parenthood nurses and doctors are taking every step we can to ensure that women in Texas have access to the highest quality health care no matter where they live."