The next round in the fight over Texas' abortion restrictions begins this week, with Planned Parenthood challenging the law in federal court and a state agency transforming the law into regulations.
A judge will hear arguments Monday over whether enforcement of the law should be stopped until abortion rights advocates have a chance to argue their case at trial. The Texas attorney general's office will argue the law doesn't violate the U.S. Constitution and should be enforced.
The law restricts how, when and where a woman can obtain an abortion in Texas and was the subject of Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis' nearly 13-hour filibuster that brought her national attention. Thousands of protesters opposing and supporting the bill converged on the Capitol in June and July until the Republican-controlled Legislature eventually passed the measure. No other subject has attracted such large protests at the Capitol in at least 30 years.
Beginning Oct. 29, the law requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges within 30 miles of the clinic, that they follow strict instructions for pill-induced abortions and that they only perform abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy if health of the mother is in danger or the fetus is not viable.
Starting next October, the law also requires all abortions take place in an ambulatory surgical center -- a mandate that could leave only a handful of clinics open in the nation's second most populous state.
Supporters say the multiple layers of the law are designed to stop as many abortions as possible. The authors of the measure have all said they would like to see abortion banned completely, but have argued that the law once known as House Bill 2 will protect women's health, despite opposition from the Texas Medical Association, Texas Hospital Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
In court papers, Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers argue the law has little to do with medicine and will deny women access to a legal abortion in large swathes of the state. They've asked Judge Lee Yeakel to delay enforcement of the admitting privileges requirement and the restrictions on medical abortions because they violate a woman's right to an abortion and the doctor's rights to work and apply the safest standard of care to their patients.
Federal judges in other states have found problems with similar provisions, but the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has supported most of Texas' attempts to limit abortions. If Yeakel imposes a temporary injunction, Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott will immediately appeal that decision to the conservative New Orleans-based court.
If the law goes into effect as proposed, abortion clinics in Fort Worth, Harlingen, Killeen, Lubbock, McAllen and Waco will all have to close due to the admitting privileges requirement. No abortion clinics will be operating east of Waco or west of Interstate 35.
Planned Parenthood is also calling on supporters this week to tell the Department of State Health Services what they think about the proposed regulations for abortion clinics that will take effect Oct. 1, 2014. The deadline to comment is Oct. 27.
The draft rules would present a major challenge for abortions clinics that want to remain open. Abortion clinics are already heavily regulated and inspected in Texas and the rule that they meet ambulatory surgical center requirements adds a second layer of regulation.
For instance, abortion clinics are subject to unannounced inspections, while surgical centers are not. Abortion clinics will also have to meet national standards for sterility, operating room size and corridor width, even if the only abortions they perform are induced by taking a pill and sending the woman home. And while older surgical centers are not required to update facilities to meet newer standards, existing abortion clinics that do not meet the new standards must be closed.
Currently there are only six ambulatory surgical centers that perform abortions in Texas, all of them in major metropolitan areas. If all of the new rules were to come into effect on Oct. 29, only four abortion clinics would remain open, but the legal and regulatory fights over Texas abortion laws have just begun.