Federal Court Protects Texas Women from Further Loss of Abortion Access

HB2 provision requiring unnecessary, multimillion-dollar renovations of abortion clinics ruled unconstitutional, would have shuttered all but a few abortion clinics in the state September 1

Following a trial earlier this month, today a federal district court judge struck down two components of an anti-abortion Texas omnibus law that has already closed approximately half the state’s abortion clinics and threatened to restrict access to safe and legal abortion across the state even further.

The ruling issued today by U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel blocks the state’s requirement that every existing licensed abortion facility meet the same building requirements as an ambulatory surgical center (ASC)—a provision that would have amounted to a multi-million dollar tax on abortion services, leaving the state with as few as seven abortion providers as of September 1.

Today’s ruling also found that law’s admitting privileges requirement was unconstitutional as it applies to two clinics in the state’s hardest-hit communities: the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas. Further, the court ruled that the ASC and admitting privileges requirements together “create an impermissible obstacle as applied to all women seeking a previability abortion.”

Said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“This trial and today’s decision have stripped away the pretexts of the politicians who passed this law and revealed their true intention to deny Texas women access to safe, legal abortion care.

“The court has made clear that women’s well-being is not advanced by laws attacking access to essential health care, and that rights protected by the U.S. Constitution may not be denied through laws that make them impossible to exercise.

“Texas women still face serious threats to their rights, health, and ability to obtain safe, high-quality reproductive health care from reputable doctors in their communities. But at least for the moment, today’s victory is vital in preventing politicians’ scorched-earth assaults on women’s health care from causing even more harm than they already have.”

Today’s decision is the third time a federal court has blocked anti-choice efforts to shutter clinics in recent weeks, joining a recent district court decision permanently blocking admitting privileges requirements in Alabama and a ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a preliminary injunction against a similar law in Mississippi.

The clinics and physicians in this challenge are represented by Stephanie Toti, Esha Bhandari, and David Brown of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a team of attorneys from the law firm Morrison & Foerster led by J. Alexander Lawrence, and Austin attorneys Jan Soifer and Patrick O’Connell of the law firm O’Connell & Soifer.

This is the Center for Reproductive Rights’ second challenge to Texas’ House Bill 2 (HB2), a sweeping package of anti-choice legislation that was passed last summer. The first suit—filed in September 2013—challenged the law’s unconstitutional admitting privileges requirement as it applies to all clinics in the state, as well as its onerous restrictions on medication abortion. These provisions were upheld by a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the plaintiffs await a decision on whether the full appeals court will rehear the case.

Major medical groups oppose the types of restrictions found in Texas’ HB2. Both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) oppose hospital admitting privileges as a requirement for physicians providing abortion services. Medical experts confirm that legal abortion care in the U.S. is extremely safe, with fewer than 1 percent of patients requiring treatment at a hospital. ACOG also opposes the imposition of medically unnecessary facility requirements on abortion providers.

Harmful and unconstitutional restrictions like these further underscore the need for the federal Women's Health Protection Act (S. 1696/H.R. 3471)—a bill that would prohibit states like Texas from imposing unconstitutional restrictions on reproductive health care providers that apply to no similar medical care, interfere with women’s personal decision making, and block access to safe and legal abortion services. Elected officials in two Texas cities— Austin and Houston—have called for the repeal of HB2 and the passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act.