Strict Texas Abortion Law Back in Court This Week

Whole Woman's Health of Austin closed it doors just days before heading to trial against House Bill 2. (via)

Arguments began today in the second lawsuit filed against Texas House Bill 2, the restrictive abortion bill passed last summer that has so far led to the shuttering of 20 of Texas’ 41 abortion clinics.

The National Center for Reproductive Rights, representing Whole Woman’s Health abortion providers and others, is challenging two provisions of the four-part law, including the requirement that abortion clinics meet standards required of ambulatory surgical centers. Currently, Whole Woman’s Health operates the only facility in San Antonio in full compliance. Plans for a Planned Parenthood surgical center in San Antonio are underway.

Lawyers on behalf of abortion providers argued before U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin today that the law imposes significant restrictions to abortion access across the state and provides “no benefit to women.” They argued that instead, the law forces them to travel long distances for the procedure and to forego or delay the abortion, therefore putting themselves at a more serious health risk, or they obtain black market drugs to carry out the abortion. Still, the Office of the Attorney General insisted that the law is “medically justified” and the ASC standards benefit the safety of women.

Abortion provider advocates and their lawyers argue the standards are unnecessary and onerous, not to mention expensive. The high costs associated with implementing the ASC requirements or opening an entirely new, compliant facility, which could total to $3 million or more, according to an architectural and building code expert who testified Monday. This provision of HB 2 will have forced all but six clinics to close once the law takes effect on September 1. The remaining facilities will be in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth, while west and south Texas will be without licensed abortion providers.

Women living in this large swath of the state will have to travel more than 150 miles to San Antonio for the procedure. Lawyers for the state asserted Monday morning that women in El Paso “will have no trouble at all obtaining” an abortion and can drive 10-15 miles to New Mexico for the procedure rather than the hundreds of miles to San Antonio. As for women in the Rio Grande Valley, which lost its clinics in Corpus Christi, Harlingen, and McAllen beginning last summer, they will have to travel more than 250 miles to obtain an abortion, a reality that Deputy Attorney Jimmy Blacklock with the OAG’s office questioned as being a “substantial obstacle.”

Plaintiffs this week are also challenging the law’s hospital admitting privileges requirement, specifically for two providers in McAllen and El Paso who were denied such privileges and therefore had to close their doors.

As trial proceedings continue this week and appeals are likely to be filed regardless of the outcome, the impact of the law has already reverberated throughout the state. A study released a few weeks ago by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a research partnership between the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and Ibis Reproductive Health, found that on top of the dramatic decrease in the number of abortion facilities statewide since last summer, the abortion rate has dropped by 13 percent, likely due to the fact that there are fewer clinics. The research also shows nearly 1 million women of childbearing age in Texas will live more than 150 miles from a licensed abortion facility once the law takes full effect next month.

The first lawsuit filed against House Bill 2 challenged the law’s admitting privileges provision as well as “outdated protocol when taking abortion drugs,” the Current previously reported. Judge Yeakel originally granted an injunction in that suit, but the state’s appeal was upheld by the conservative 5th Circuit of Appeals this past spring.

This week’s trial proceedings are expected to last through the week, and Judge Yeakel’s timeline for announcing his ruling on the case is unclear.

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