By Joe Gyan Jr.
A federal appellate court gave Louisiana the go-ahead Wednesday to enforce a 2014 state law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinics, a requirement clinic advocates say would force the closure of all but one of the state's facilities.
The move by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans came one month after U.S. District Judge John deGravelles, of Baton Rouge, struck down Louisiana's law -- Act 620 -- and blocked its implementation while the state appealed.
Abortion clinics and doctors who sued to overturn the law argued it places an undue burden on a large percentage of women seeking abortions in Louisiana. But the panel disagreed.
"Louisiana is likely to prevail in its arguments that Plaintiffs failed to establish an undue burden on women seeking abortions or that the Act creates a substantial obstacle in the path of a large fraction of women seeking an abortion," Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod wrote Wednesday for the panel.
Circuit Judges Edith Brown Clement and Leslie Southwick joined Elrod in the ruling.
The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights vowed an immediate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, warning that three of Louisiana's four remaining abortion clinics in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport and Bossier City will be forced to close unless the high court acts immediately.
"Today's ruling thrusts Louisiana into a reproductive health care crisis, where women will face limited safe and legal options when they've made the decision to end a pregnancy," said Nancy Northup, the center's president and chief executive officer.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and Louisiana Right to Life executive director Benjamin Clapper were quick to applaud the 5th Circuit decision.
Landry called the state law a "reasonable, common-sense safety measure."
"Anyone who has outpatient surgery would expect her doctor to admit her to a hospital in the event of complications; women seeking abortions should have the same assurance of prompt care," he said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards noted he voted for the law when he was in the state House of Representatives.
"I believe it will help improve access to quality health care for women by working to ensure that these facilities are operating in the safest manner possible and with ready access to emergency care," he said.
Planned Parenthood warned, however, that the ruling will have the effect of "decimating women's access to abortion in the state overnight." The group has criticized these admitting privileges laws, which have been passed in several states, as specifically aimed at closing clinics, not actually improving patient care for a procedure that rarely leads to complications.
"Banning abortion in Louisiana is the real reason this law was passed," Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast chief executive officer Melaney Linton said.
"This cannot be what it means to be a woman in America in 2016," added Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards.
Clapper said the appeals court agreed that deGravelles ignored the state's evidence showing more than 90 percent of Louisiana women would still be within 150 miles of an abortion provider.
"As we expected, the 5th Circuit has upheld the common sense requirements of admitting privileges consistent with other decisions on this matter," he said. "Even while waiting for the case's full appeal, we look forward to the health and safety of women being protected."
A 5th Circuit panel had previously upheld a similar law out of Texas, which providers in that state said contributed to closure of about half the clinics. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments about that law next week.
When asked about how the recent death of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia might impact the high court's abortion deliberations this term, Clapper noted there could be a 4-4 decision coming out of the high court. That would leave all the 5th Circuit decisions in effect, he said.
There have been two admitting privileges decisions out of the 5th Circuit -- the Texas case and a different panel's decision rejecting the same requirement in Mississippi, as it would have shuttered the state's only clinic.
Act 620's author, state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, called the appellate court action "a victory for the health and safety of women who are harmed by abortion."
"I am very pleased that the Legislature's interest in protecting both women and unborn children is being respected by the court," she added.
But the Center for Reproductive Rights' Northup said the Louisiana law is an unjust and unconstitutional attack on women's rights and health.
"Whether in Louisiana, Texas, or elsewhere, women should not be forced to run to court year after year to protect their fundamental rights," she said. "It's time for the U.S. Supreme Court to make it clear that politicians cannot sneak around the Constitution to rob women of their right to safe and legal abortion."
(c)2016 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.