Texas Trial to Test Higher Standard for State’s Abortion Clinics

Original article was published in The Wall Street Journal.


AUSTIN, Texas—In a federal trial set to begin here on Monday, abortion-rights supporters are seeking to strike down a new provision of a state law that will require abortion clinics to qualify as “ambulatory surgical centers” starting next month, saying it will force even more of the state’s facilities to close.


Since Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a hotly contested law in July 2013 requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, the number of licensed Texas clinics providing abortions has declined by half over the past year, to 18 from 36. Many abortion doctors have been unable to obtain admitting privileges from neighboring hospitals, leaving swaths of the sprawling state without any clinics at all.


Another provision requiring abortion providers to qualify as ambulatory surgical centers, which is set to take effect Sept. 1, is now met by only seven clinics, located in the state’s five biggest cities.


In Dallas, the nation’s ninth-largest city with more than 1.2 million people, only two clinics currently qualify as a surgery center.


In its suit, which will be heard by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights is seeking to block the surgical-center rule from taking effect, claiming it unduly burdens a woman’s constitutional abortion rights. “Forcing every abortion clinic to become a mini-hospital is medically unjustified and will push already scant reproductive health care services that much further—if not entirely—out of reach for Texas women,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.


Last year, in a separate suit, Judge Yeakel struck down the Texas law’s admitting-privileges requirement. But that ruling was later overturned by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the law in March. The Fifth Circuit ruling is on appeal.


Supporters of the law say it has improved women’s health by imposing more-rigorous quality-control standards on abortion clinics.


“The law centered on protecting the unborn and enhancing women’s health care in Texas,” said Texas Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Republican and chief sponsor of the abortion legislation.

“We don’t’ think the women of Texas should be subject to substandard abortion clinics,” added Emily Horne, a legislative associate with Texas Right to Life.


Opponents of the law say its real intent is to effectively deny women their rights to an abortion under the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision. They say many poorer women cannot afford to travel to urban clinics, and that some are resorting to unsafe alternatives.


“People are trying to buy drugs over the Internet to self-induce” abortions, said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the founder of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates two Texas facilities that provide abortions—down form five before the law took effect.


In the Rio Grande Valley, an economically depressed region along the Texas-Mexico border, the only two abortion clinics closed this year. Women now have to travel to San Antonio, about 250 miles away, to reach a licensed abortion clinic.


Lucy Felix, who works in the area with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, said the women she serves typically don’t have the means to travel to San Antonio. “They either receive medical attention, or bring food to their house or pay rent or electricity,” she said. “They’re having to take matters into their own hands to interrupt their pregnancy.”


The director of a Dallas abortion clinic, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal, said her clinic—which doesn’t qualify as a surgery center—plans to close its doors on Aug. 30, before the new restrictions take effect.


“I’ve been doing this since the early ’80s,” she said of her work in the abortion field. “It’s hard to believe we’ve regressed this much.”


—Ana Campoy contributed to this article.



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