Whole Woman's Health in Austin closed earlier this summer in the wake of House Bill 2. Photo via Facebook
Update September 1, 2014, 5:25 p.m.
Late Sunday, Attorney General Greg Abbott filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to overturn District Judge Lee Yeakel's ruling that provisions of House Bill 2 are unconstitutional. Yeakel's ruling halted the final piece of the law from taking effect today, which would've required all abortion facilities in Texas to meet expensive ambulatory surgical center standards.
Abbott asked for an emergency stay, which essentially means he asked that the law take effect immediately while the Fifth Circuit considers the appeal. Abbott has requested that the court respond by Friday, Sept. 5.
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U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled the final piece of Texas' sweeping abortion law unconstitutional, writing that the ambulatory surgical center requirement imposed on abortion facilities "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."
Yeakel's ruling today blocks the state from enforcing this final piece of House Bill 2, which was set to take effect Monday and would've led to only six or seven clinics statewide. The clinics that would've closed can remain open. Yeakel's ruling also exempts Whole Woman's Health in McAllen (which closed last year) and El Paso's Reproductive Services (the only clinic open west of San Antonio) from a second restriction imposed by the law: requiring that physicians performing abortions obtain admitting privileges at hospitals nearby.
The Attorney General is expected the appeal the decision immediately to the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which already overturned Yeakel's first ruling on House Bill 2 last year.
The law "burdens Texas women in a way incompatible with the principles of personal freedom and privacy protected by the United States Constitution for the 40 years since Roe v. Wade," Yeakel wrote.
So far, these two pieces of Texas' sweeping law have led to the closure of more than half of Texas' abortion clinics and women have been forced to travel, hundreds of miles in some cases, for their abortions. Yeakel's ruling says that "the act's two requirements undeniably reduce meaningful access to abortion care for women throughout Texas...even if the remaining clinics could meet the demand, the court concludes that the practical impact on Texas women due to the clinics' closure statewide would operate for a significant number of women in Texas just as drastically as a complete ban on abortion."
So what does the ruling mean for San Antonio's remaining three abortion providers? As we reported in this week's issue of the Current, Whole Woman's Health is the only local facility operating its own ASC, and they'll stay open. Planned Parenthood in San Antonio planned to lease space from another local ASC to continue serving women while it raises money to build an its own ASC. Dr. Alan Braid with Alamo Women's Reproductive Health told the Current that his clinic will continue to see patients after today's ruling. He told the Current last week that the facility can't be retrofitted to meet ASC standards and he was exploring other options should the ASC provision take effect.
Since last November, clinics have closed left and right statewide because of these restrictions, including all the clinics south of San Antonio and all but one in west Texas. Some of San Antonio’s three remaining abortion providers have increased hours to serve not only local patients, but also women from the Rio Grande Valley and far West Texas, but providers consistently told the Current that financial barriers, high travel costs, lack of child care, and the inability to take days off work have kept women from getting to the Alamo City. Expert witnesses said the same thing during the trial, and Yeakel agreed.
"It is overly simplistic and reductionist to conclude that absolute distances or theoretical travel times measured under ideal circumstances act identically on a population as diverse as Texas'," he writes. "It it equally unrealistic to conclude absolute travel distance is the only meaningful obstacle raised by House Bill 2's elimination of more than 30 previously operating abortion facilities. The act's two requirements erect a particularly high barrier for poor, rural, or disadvantaged women throughout Texas, regardless of the absolute distance that they may have to travel to obtain an abortion...these practical burdens 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, and other, inarticulable psychological obstacles."
You can read Yeakel's full decision here.