New Texas abortion restrictions that would leave nearly 1 million women without any close options to end a pregnancy left a federal judge Wednesday signaling unease with the long drives the law would cause some abortion-seekers.
"I have a problem believing it is reasonable for anyone to travel 150 miles for medical care when they could get the medical care closer," U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said.
The remark surprised some anti-abortion advocates on hand for closing arguments at an Austin trial that could block a major piece of a sweeping anti-abortion bill signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry last year. If the law is upheld, abortions would be banned at more than a dozen clinics currently available to Texas women.
The law is set to take effect Sept. 1.
Yeakel did not indicate when he will rule, and neither supporters nor opponents of the law took his comment as a sign that he was leaning toward blocking the restrictions. But he lingered on the question of how far is too far for a woman to obtain the constitutional right to an abortion.
A federal appeals court has already ruled that a 150-mile drive doesn't impose a substantial burden to women seeking an abortion. For women in El Paso, the closest abortion facility in Texas would become a 1,100-mile round trip if the city lost its only provider.
Yeakel asked whether there was any other "minor" procedure -- such as treating a sprained ankle -- where someone would travel 150 miles for care. He also questioned why it wouldn't be an undue burden for a "rich woman" driving fast in a Mercedes to travel that far.
"I was a little surprised to hear the judge equate the very serious procedure of abortion, which is irreversible, to treating a sprained ankle. I don't think that's a fair comparison at all," said Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, an anti-abortion group.
The law requires all Texas abortion facilities to begin meeting stringent hospital-level operational standards, such as having operating rooms and additional staff. Forcing clinics to make those upgrades would amount to a "$3 million tax on abortion services in this state," said Stephanie Toti, an attorney for abortion clinics in the lawsuit.
There are currently 19 abortion providers in the state, according to groups challenging the law. Only seven would remain if the restrictions take effect, all of which would be in major cities and leave none in the western half of the nation's second-largest state.
Attorneys for the state argued that nearly 9 in 10 women in Texas would still live within 150 miles of an abortion provider, and that women in El Paso could be served by a New Mexico clinic that is only just a mile across the state border.
In November, the last abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley shut down, putting the next closest facility about 240 miles away in San Antonio. Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell argued that abortion groups not producing any women who've had trouble getting the procedure since that closure is evidence of the law presenting no substantial burden.
"They've had every incentive to locate just one person who could testify. Yet there's no testimony," Mitchell said.