Fifth Circuit Panel 'Skeptical' Of Texas Abortion Law's Negative Impact

No abortion access in the Rio Grande Valley? No huge deal, a federal three-judge panel basically retorted this morning. Judge Edith Jones of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. During a hearing that challenges Texas' abortion law before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, conservative panelist Justice Edith Jones questioned a group of reproductive health leaders, who claimed that the state's recently imposed abortion law creates an "undue burden" on women, according to the Houston Chronicle. The new law—which restricts women from obtaining abortion after 20 weeks, places restrictions on abortion medication and forces abortion physicians to secure admitting privileges at nearby hospitals—is currently preventing one in three women from abortion access, say the health leaders. The ongoing lawsuit pits Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and other abortion care groups against the state and specifically aims to block the admit privileges requirement and the drug provision of the law. Abortion care providers and patients felt the law's devastating impact within 24 hours of being enacted, the Current previously reported. An estimated 12-14 abortion clinics have shuttered their doors since the law took effect. It's especially burdensome for the women in the Rio Grande Valley, where no abortion providers exist today, argued Janet Crepps with CRR. These women must now travel as far as 300 miles roundtrip to obtain an abortion— and that's only if these mostly low-income women can first find access to transportation and afford time off work. Yet, the argument didn't seem to elicit any sympathy from Jones. “You know how long that takes in Texas at 75 miles an hour?” asked  Jones. “That’s a particularly flat highway.” Andrea Grimes at RH Reality Check similarly picked up on the judge's noticeable apathy, writing, "[..] the judges appeared largely unconcerned about HB 2?s effect on Valley residents, who are among the poorest in the country." She notes that while judge Catharina Haynes conceded that “HB 2 may be a problem in the Rio Grande Valley,” it didn’t necessarily apply to other areas of Texas or the to the, "wider constitutionality of the law." The Associated Press reports Haynes also cast doubt on the groups' estimates of the impact the privileges requirement would have on women– they forecast the law will deny more than 20,000 women access to abortion per year.

"Predicting the future is hard," Haynes said. "Addressing the past is far more straightforward."

Their indifference may be no surprise to close observers of the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit. In the recent past, Jones has ruled unfavorably to reproductive rights— in 2012, she voted to maintain the state's pre-abortion ultrasound law, even describing it as helpful to women. She's also previously alluded to her support for overturning Roe v Wade: "In sum, if courts were to delve into the facts underlying Roe’s balancing scheme with present-day knowledge, they might conclude that the woman’s “choice” is far more risky and less beneficial, and the child’s sentience far more advanced, than the Roe Court knew," Jones wrote in a 2004 opinion (prompted by historic plaintiff Norma McCorvey 'Jane Roe' who has since changed her mind about abortion.) She went on to write, "One may fervently hope that the Court will someday acknowledge such developments [on fetal 'viability' etc.] and re-evaluate Roe [...] accordingly." Having already given us a preview of how they'll likely rule back in October, George W. Bush appointees Justices Jennifer Elrod and Haynes make a second appearance in the continuing case. Joined by an anti-abortion advocate, the three judge panel reversed a federal judge’s ruling that deemed a section of Texas’ anti-abortion law ‘unconstitutional,' arguing the plaintiffs couldn’t establish a case for “undue burden” on women and agreed the state essentially knows best, as it has an interest in regulating the medical field. While no ruling was given today, it's expected that the trio of conservative judges will mirror their past decisions on reproductive rights. If any further indication is needed to predict the New Orleans-based appellate court's final ruling, look to the reaction by anti-abortion lobby groups who lauded the judge's treatment of Planned Parenthood and the CRR:   Likewise, Texas Alliance for Life spokesman Joe Pojman told the Chronicle after the hearing that he was "gratified" by the judges’ questions. The case is expected, by some, to eventually end up at the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.