Supreme Court Steps In to Protect Abortion Access in Texas

Nation’s highest court blocks 5th Circuit ruling that would have shuttered all but 9 clinics in the state

(PRESS RELEASE)  In a 5-4 order, the U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to suspend a recent ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit which threatened to shutter all but nine abortion clinics in the state—ensuring harmful provisions of Texas’ clinic shutdown law will remain blocked while Texas health care providers ask the nation’s highest court to review the case. 

Today’s order comes ten days after Texas health care providers—represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights—asked the Supreme Court to block the June 9 ruling after the Fifth Circuit refused to do so late in the day on June 19.  This is the second time in eight months that the nation’s highest court has stepped in to block Texas’ clinic shutdown law from taking effect.

“The justices have preserved Texas women’s few remaining options for safe and legal abortion care for the moment. Now it’s time to put a stop to these clinic shutdown laws once and for all,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.  “Our Constitution rightly protects women from laws that would create barriers to safe and legal abortion care, but Texas politicians have tried to sneak around the Constitution with sham regulations designed to close clinics’ doors.  The Supreme Court has affirmed time and again that a woman has a constitutionally protected right to decide whether to continue or end a pregnancy, and we are confident the justices will make clear once again that the constitutional protections for safe and legal abortion are real.”

“We’re relieved that the high court has, once again, prevented anti-choice politicians from pushing safe and affordable abortion care entirely out of reach for Texas women.  We at Whole Woman’s Health know that reproductive care is not some political bargaining chip—that’s part of why we’re fighting this. With today’s ruling, we remain hopeful that the justice system too will stand with Texas woman and Whole Woman’s Health," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder, president, and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health.”

Major medical groups oppose the types of restrictions found in Texas’ clinic shutdown law.  The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) submitted a joint amicus brief opposing the law, stating that “H.B. 2 does not serve the health of women in Texas but instead jeopardizes women’s health by restricting access to abortion providers.”  Medical experts confirm that legal abortion care in the U.S. is extremely safe, and that laws like Texas’ would do nothing to make it safer.  Meanwhile, real problems concerning women’s health in Texas, especially the state’s skyrocketing death rate for women in pregnancy and childbirth, continue to go unaddressed by Texas politicians.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to access abortion. More than 20 years ago today, the Supreme Court made this clear in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which it ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution limits a state's right to interfere with a person’s “most basic decisions about family and parenthood”--including the decision to obtain an abortion.  On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in the U.S., finding that state bans on same-sex marriage and refusing to recognize legal marriages obtained in other states was a clear violation of both the due process and equal protection rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.  

Clinic shutdown laws have swept the South in recent years, threatening to further devastate abortion access in a region already facing limited availability of reproductive health care services.  The last abortion clinic in Mississippi is awaiting a decision on whether the U.S. Supreme Court will review its state’s clinic shutdown law and trial concluded in the challenge to Louisiana’s clinic shutdown law today.

June 9th Ruling 

The Fifth Circuit’s June 9 decision allowed the state’s requirement that every reproductive health care facility offering abortion services meet the same hospital-like building standards as an ambulatory surgical center (ASC) to go into effect on July 1 for nearly all clinics in the state—a measure that amounts to a multi-million dollar tax on abortion services and would close all but nine abortion providers in the state.  While the court partially enjoined the ASC requirement as applied to the last clinic in the Rio Grande Valley, its injunction is narrow and may be of limited benefit to the clinic and the women it serves.

The ruling also reverses the lower court’s injunction blocking the state’s admitting privileges requirement except as applied to a single doctor.  This provision has already forced approximately half the state’s abortion clinics to close their doors. 

The court ruled that women in El Paso—who will face a round-trip of over a thousand miles to obtain an abortion in Texas—could travel to neighboring state New Mexico – where there are no ASC or admitting privileges requirements – to access their constitutional right to safe and legal abortion.

Case History:  Whole Woman’s Health v Cole (formerly Whole Woman’s Health v Lakey)

On August 29, 2014 a federal district blocked two of the most harmful restriction of Texas’ House Bill 2 (HB2):  the ambulatory surgical center requirement and the admitting privileges requirement.  On October 2, 2014, the Fifth Circuit allowed the ASC requirement to immediately take effect by staying the lower court’s injunction.  For 12 days, all but seven reproductive health care facilities in the state were prevented from offering safe and legal abortion services—until October 14, 2014, when the United State Supreme Court responded to an emergency application by Texas health care providers and reinstated the injunction in large part, allowing many of the previously closed clinics to reopen their doors.

The clinics and physicians in this challenge are represented by Stephanie Toti 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.

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