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Federal appeals court could rule soon on Texas abortion law

October 30, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Texas state troopers separate supporters of opposing sides at the state Capitol in Austin during Texas' legislative battle that ended with new abortion restrictions being passed on July 1.
Texas state troopers separate supporters of opposing sides at the state… (Ryan Fennell / Flickr Vision )

A federal appeals court in New Orleans had yet to rule Wednesday on Texas officials' request for an emergency order allowing a set of new abortion restrictions to take effect in their state as scheduled.

On Monday, a federal judge in Texas issued a ruling that blocked some of the restrictions that he found unconstitutional, including a provision requiring doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and limits on medication-induced abortions.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals took up state officials' appeal Tuesday for an emergency stay of the lower court's ruling so that the new law can take effect pending a final decision on its merits.

In their appeal for a stay, Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott and other Texas officials had asked the court to rule Tuesday so that the new restrictions could take effect. They also asked the court to expedite the overall appeal of the federal judge’s ruling and hear the case at their next sitting in January.

“There is no evidence -- and no findings in the district court’s opinion -- that any woman will face any obstacles to obtaining an abortion if the law takes effect,” they argued in their appellate court filing, calling the federal judge’s previous ruling “aggressive” and “overbroad.”

Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers had sued to block the restrictions, passed by the state legislature last summer, and convinced U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin that the new admitting privileges requirement would force many clinics to close, leaving thousands of women without access to abortion services.

In his ruling, Yeakel said the admitting privileges provision of the new law posed a “substantial obstacle” to women seeking abortions. He also partially struck down another provision limiting how doctors administer abortion-inducing drugs, saying they should still be used when necessary to safeguard a pregnant woman’s health.

Opponents of the new restrictions were still optimistic Wednesday that the appeals court would ultimately side with them.

"In addition to finding that the admitting privileges requirement lacks a rational basis, the District Court also determined that it is unconstitutional because it places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking abortions," they wrote in their opposition to the emergency stay, adding that state officials' position, "ignores the voluminous record evidence that establishes that literally thousands of women will be denied abortions as a result of enforcement of the privileges requirement."

Similar requirements for admitting privileges were challenged and blocked before taking effect in Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota and Wisconsin. State courts in North Dakota and Oklahoma have struck down restrictions on medication abortion, and the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the Oklahoma law.

Mississippi passed a similar law last year, and faced similar legal challenges. After a federal judge blocked the law pending a trial in March, the state’s attorney general asked the 5th Circuit to lift a temporary stay and allow the law to be enforced in the interim, but they refused.

The new Texas abortion restrictions drew national attention this summer when state Sen. Wendy Davis staged a daylong filibuster initially blocking them in June. Davis, a Democrat, is running for governor, as is Abbott, a Republican.

The filibuster forced Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is retiring, to call a second special legislative session, during which the Republican-controlled legislature eventually passed the law. He expressed further support for the new restrictions this week.


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