U.S. Supreme Court Allows Texas Abortion Clinics to Reopen
By Brian M. Rosenthal
The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday evening ordered Texas to stop enforcing part of the state's strict new abortion law until a legal challenge has been settled, at least temporarily allowing more than a dozen clinics to immediately reopen.
A majority of the justices agreed that abortion facilities across the state should not yet have to meet the standards of hospital-style surgical centers and that clinics in McAllen and El Paso should, for now, be exempt from a requirement that abortion doctors obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
The regulations are part of House Bill 2, a sweeping abortion measure approved last summer that had forced 75 percent of the clinics in Texas to close, leaving just eight in a state of 26 million people.
Supporters have argued the law protects the safety of those seeking abortions, while opponents have said the procedure is safe and the law was designed to force clinics to close.
Whole Woman's Health, which closed four of its five abortion clinics due to the law, probably will open its McAllen clinic in the coming days, again giving the Rio Grande Valley an abortion facility, a spokeswoman said. It was too soon to know about other clinics, she said.
"Tonight, Texan women got justice," Amy Hagstrom Miller, the organization's president, said in a statement, adding that she "let out a shout of joy like I have not done in months."
The high court's order continued a weeks-long roller-coaster ride for Whole Woman's Health and other abortion providers that began in late August when an Austin-based federal judge struck down the regulations just before the surgical center standard was set to go into effect. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision Oct. 2, allowing enforcement of the law as the court considers an appeal to the local judge's ruling.
A coalition of providers last week urged the Supreme Court to intervene, saying that if enforcement continued "women's ability to exercise their constitutional right to obtain an abortion will be lost, and their lives will be permanently and profoundly altered."
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told the Supreme Court that rhetoric was overblown, describing the 200 to 250 miles that about 750,000 Texas women would have to travel to get to one of the eight remaining facilities as "an inconvenience, but still a manageable one."
Activists on both sides of the case said they had not expected the high court to halt enforcement of the regulations. When a similar request about a different part of House Bill 2 came before the justices last fall, they did not act.
Tuesday's five-sentence order included no explanation. The order said that Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito did not want the high court to intervene, meaning five or six justices voted to do so.
Similar laws elsewhere
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said the decision may indicate that the Supreme Court is interested in eventually deciding the constitutionality of the law.
"Texas is front and center in the abortion fight right now," Tobias said. "That's pretty clear."
Abortion-rights supporters have been placing hope in the Supreme Court since the Legislature approved House Bill 2 last June despite a filibuster led by state Sen. Wendy Davis, now the Democratic nominee for governor against Abbott, the Republican candidate.
The bill also bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and regulates the use of an abortion pill.
Similar laws have been passed in other states in recent months, potentially setting up a challenge over the limits of the high court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade establishing abortion as a right.
On Tuesday, Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based group fighting abortion laws across the country, called the Supreme Court order "a tremendous victory" for Texas women.
"This fight against Texas' sham abortion law is not over," Northrup added in a statement. "HB2 was designed to gut the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade and half of the state's clinics remain closed. We will continue this legal battle until the rights of Texas women are restored."
Abortion opponents also focused on the fight that continues to loom. The 5th Circuit is expected to weigh the merits of House Bill 2 in the next few months.
"Texas Right to Life recognizes the magnitude of today's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court as a temporary path of access to big business abortion services," said Melissa Conway, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group. "While we find it unfortunate that the women of Texas remain unprotected against predatory and subpar abortion mills, HB2 is still slated to be heard on merits by the 5th Circuit."
Lauren Bean, an Abbott spokeswoman, indicated in a statement that the order would not change the work of state lawyers.
"The Attorney General's Office will continue to defend the law," Bean said, "just as we defend all state laws when they are challenged in court."
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