A federal judge in Austin, Texas, blocked a stringent new rule Friday that would have forced more than half of the state’s remaining abortion clinics to close, the latest in a string of court decisions that have at least temporarily kept abortion clinics across the South from being shuttered.
The Texas rule, requiring all abortion clinics to meet the building, equipment and staffing standards of hospital-style surgery centers, had been set to take effect Monday. But in his opinion, Judge Lee Yeakel of U.S. District Court in Austin, said the mandate placed unjustified obstacles on women’s access to abortion without providing significant medical benefits.
The rule “is unconstitutional because it imposes an undue burden on the right of women throughout Texas to seek a pre-viability abortion,” Yeakel wrote.
Texas officials vowed to appeal the decision, while abortion-rights advocates were elated.
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“The state disagrees with the court’s ruling and will seek immediate relief from the 5th Circuit,” said Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates abortion clinics in the state and was a plaintiff in the suit, said: “We are extremely pleased by Judge Yeakel’s ruling today. As he clearly states in his decision, requiring every abortion clinic to turn into a surgical center is excessive and not based on good medicine.”
Yeakel’s decision followed recent legal victories across the South for abortion-rights advocates, as federal courts have blocked measures that would have forced the closing of the only abortion clinic in Mississippi and three of five clinics in Alabama. It also reflects the still-charged legal and political environment surrounding abortion in the face of restrictions enacted by Republican-led legislatures across the nation in recent years.
Adopted as part of a sweeping anti-abortion measure last year, the rule would have forced the closing of more than a dozen of the state’s remaining abortion clinics because they were unable to afford to renovate or to open new facilities that met the standards for such things as hallway width, ceiling height, advanced ventilation equipment, staffing and parking spaces.
The closings would have left Texas — the second-biggest state by population and size — with seven or eight abortion clinics, all in major cities such as Houston and Dallas. Women seeking abortions in El Paso in West Texas and in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas would have lived more than 150 miles — a distance ruled constitutional by a federal appeals court — from the closest clinic, in San Antonio.
State officials and other supporters of the abortion law in Texas were confident they would prevail on appeal.
Last year, Yeakel stayed enforcement of another provision of the 2013 law — a requirement that doctors performing abortions obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic — but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, reversed his decision. The appeals court ruled that because women in Texas were still within driving distance of clinics, the rule did not impose an “undue burden.”
The admitting-privilege provision has already forced numerous clinics in Texas to close. In part because of the rule, the number of facilities providing abortions in Texas has fallen to 19, from 41 in November 2012.
In the case decided Friday, Yeakel, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2003, reinstated a block on the admitting-privileges rule for two clinics — in El Paso and McAllen, in the Rio Grande Valley — saying the evidence was especially clear that the law’s requirements would substantially reduce access to abortion for women in West and South Texas.
Overall, he concluded, with the additional clinic closures that would have been forced by the surgery-center rule, many more women would be hours away from a clinic.
“Even if the remaining clinics could meet the demand,” Yeakel wrote, the practical impact of the widespread closings, between long travel distances and other logistical impediments facing many women, would be as drastic as “a complete ban on abortion.”
The Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, who is the Republican candidate for governor, has defended the law and said the distances women would have to travel for abortions posed no unconstitutional burden, arguing that 86 percent of Texas women of reproductive age would live within 150 miles of a clinic if the law were fully in place.