The Labor Day weekend marked two major victories in the battle for reproductive justice in Texas and Louisiana.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel blocked two provisions of Texas’s omnibus anti-abortion law HB 2. In a scathing 21-page opinion, Judge Yeakel wrote that the law’s requirement that abortion clinics meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers (ASC) created an “unconstitutional undue burden on women throughout Texas” and could not stand. Judge Yeakel also found that the law’s admitting privileges requirement was unconstitutional as applied to two clinics in McAllen, located in the Rio Grande Valley, and El Paso.
This is the second time that Judge Yeakel has ruled against the admitting privileges requirement. The first case challenged the admitting privileges requirement as it applied to all clinics in the state – not just to the Rio Grande and El Paso clinics. Judge Yeakel struck down the requirement last year, but a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit upheld the law. The plaintiffs in that case have asked the full appeals court to rehear the case.
HB 2 has already led to the closure of about half of Texas’s 20 abortion clinics. Had the ASC requirement gone into effect, as planned, on September 1, most of the state’s remaining clinics would have been forced to close leaving no more than eight facilities.
“That the State suggests that these seven or eight providers could meet the demand of the entire state stretches credulity,” Judge Yeakel wrote. “The ambulatory surgical requirement, combined with the already in-effect admitting-privileges requirement, creates a brutally effective system of abortion regulation that reduces access to abortion clinics thereby creating a statewide burden for substantial numbers of Texas women. The obstacles created for these women are more significant than the ‘incidental effect of making it more difficult or more expensive to procure an abortion.”
Judge Yeakel detailed that the burden created by the law could not be reduced merely to increased travel distances to the state’s remaining clinics. Instead, he viewed clinic closures in a broader context, writing that “increased travel distances combine with practical concerns unique to every woman.” He continued, “These practical concerns include lack of availability of child care, unreliability of transportation, unavailability of appointments at abortion facilities, unavailability of time off from work, immigration status and inability to pass border checkpoints, poverty level, the time and expense involved in traveling long distances,” as well as other challenges. He concluded that “the clinics’ closure statewide would operate for a significant number of women in Texas just as drastically as a complete ban on abortion.”
Judge Yeakel said that the evidence presented by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to substantiate the need for an ASC requirement in “emergency situations” were “weak in the face of opposing evidence that such complications are exceedingly rare in Texas, nationwide, and specifically with respect to the Plaintiff abortion providers.”
Following the ruling, Whole Woman’s Health, one of the Plaintiffs in the case, issued a statement that its clinic in McAllen, which has been shutdown in March, had reopened as a result of Judge Yeakel’s ruling. The statement also noted that Whole Woman’s Health of Fort Worth and Whole Woman’s Health of San Antonio would stay open now that the ASC requirement had been struck down.
This victory at the district court level still remains uncertain, however. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has already filed an emergency appeal of Judge Yeakel’s decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Read the Feminist Majority Foundation’s response to Friday’s decision in Texas here.
On the heels of the Texas decision, Federal District Court Judge John W. deGravelles on Sunday granted abortion providers temporary relief from Louisiana state law HB 388, which requires doctors performing abortions to obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals. The Center for Reproductive Rights is challenging HB 388 on behalf of Louisiana’s five clinics. Judge deGravelles’s decision means that the law cannot be enforced pending the final outcome of the case.
The clinics argue that doctors have not had enough time to comply with the law, which took effect September 1. Signed earlier this year, HB 388, only allowed doctors 81 days to initiate a request for admitting privileges – a process that is highly subjective, and can extend for an indefinite amount of time. Had Judge deGravelles failed to block enforcement of the law, at least three of Louisiana’s five clinics would have been forced to stop providing abortion services.
If the Louisiana decision is appealed, it will also be heard in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same appeals court that upheld Texas’s admitting privileges as applied to all clinics in the state. This summer, however, a panel of the Fifth Circuit refused to strike down a preliminary injunction against enforcement of HB 1390, the Mississippi law requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at area hospitals. That decision allowed Mississippi’s only remaining clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO), to remain open. Also this summer, a federal district court judge in Alabama ruled that that state’s admitting privileges requirement was unconstitutional. Alabama is not within the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit.
Media Resources: Center for Reproductive Rights Press Release 8/31/14, 8/29/14; Whole Woman’s Health 8/31/14; MSNBC.com 9/1/14; Feminist Newswire 8/25/14, 8/5/14, 7/30/14, 3/28/14