AUSTIN, Texas - A U.S. judge Friday threw out new abortion restrictions that would have effectively banned the procedure at most facilities in Texas, the latest battleground in the ongoing battle over the divisive issue.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel sided with clinics that sued over one of the most disputed measures of a sweeping anti-abortion bill signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2013. The ruling stops new restrictions that would have would have essentially closed more than a dozen clinics, leaving seven abortion facilities in Texas by Sept. 1, according to groups challenging the law.
Abortion has been a much-debated issue in the U.S. in the decades since the Supreme Court affirmed a right to the procedure, and several states have tried to chip away at access under a variety of laws and proposed laws.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who is the favourite to become governor next year, vowed to seek an immediate appeal to try to preserve the new clinic rules.
Opposition to the Texas law was so visible that Democrat Wendy Davis launched her campaign for governor behind the celebrity she achieved through a nearly 13-hour filibuster last summer that temporarily blocked the bill in the state Senate. Her opponent in November is Abbott.
The ruling blocks a portion of the that law would have required abortion facilities in Texas to meet hospital-level operating standards, which supporters say will protect women's health. But Yeakel concluded the intent was only to "close existing licensed abortion clinics."
Clinics called it a backdoor effort to outlaw abortions, which has been a constitutional right since a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Outraged abortion clinic owners say they can't afford to make those upgrades, which they criticize as unnecessary.
The more stringent Texas requirements would have mandated operating rooms and air filtration systems. Some clinics already no longer offer abortions after another part of the 2013 bill required doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
Similar laws about admitting privileges have been blocked by federal courts in Mississippi, Kansas and Wisconsin.
Attorneys for the state denied that women would be burdened by fewer abortion facilities, saying nearly 9 in 10 women in Texas would still live within 150 miles (240 kilometres) of a provider. Critics say that still leaves nearly a million Texas women embarking on drives longer than three hours to get an abortion.
Under the new restrictions, the only remaining abortion facilities in Texas would have been in major cities, and there would have been none in the entire western half of the second-largest U.S. state. For women in El Paso, the closest abortion provider would be in New Mexico — an option the state wanted Yeakel to take into consideration, even though New Mexico's rules for abortion clinics are far less rigorous.
"It's an undue burden for women in Texas — and thankfully today the court agreed," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman's Health, which would have been among the clinic operators affected. "The evidence has been stacking up against the state and against the politicians who so cynically passed these laws in the name of safety."
Miller said that she will now seek to re-open a clinic in the Rio Grande Valley — where there hasn't been an abortion provider for months — as soon as this weekend.
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