Judge Rules That Texas Abortion Law is an Unconstitutional Burden on Women

A pro-choice protester holds a sign with a uterus saying "GTFO!"

Photo of a Texas pro-choice protester by Mirsasha (Creative Commons)

After a three-day trial, a Texas judge ruled today that a key section of the state’s controversial slate of abortion-rights restriction laws is unconstitutional. The laws, which thousands of Texans filled the state capitol to debate last summer, were set to go into effect at midnight tonight. 

Up for debate in this case are two portions of House Bill 2, a series of abortion rights restrictions that passed during a last-minute special legislative session in July and could shut down all but a handful of the state’s abortion-providing clinics. The bill’s ban on abortions after 20 weeks will go into effect tomorrow, but reproductive rights groups including Planned Parenthood and the ACLU appealed two other parts of the bill. Judge Lee Yeakel found one provision unconstitutional: a law that would have required Texas abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at hospitals. The second part of the law, which the judge found troubling but legal, requires clinics to follow FDA protocols in administering abortion-inducing drugs, which calls for an extra in-clinic visit and a shorter window for getting a medication abortion than standards widely accepted by the medical community. 

In discussing the proposed policies today, advocates on both sides of the issue agree on one thing: everyone, it seems, just wants to support women’s health. It’s interesting that opposing sides in the debate have staked out the same rhetorical ground.

“We are disappointed by the ruling on the medication abortion restriction, which ignores accepted medical practice and will force providers to use less safe methods,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But we will continue to fight and explore every option to protect women’s health.” 

Meanwhile, Governor Rick Perry argued that women’s health is best served by shutting down clinics. “Today’s decision will not stop our ongoing efforts to protect life and ensure the women of our state aren’t exposed to any more of the abortion-mill horror stories that have made headlines recently,” Perry said

Both sides say they’re supporting women’s health, but the reality comes down to data versus rhetoric. A recent investigation showed that Texas clinics actually have a very clean and safe record on abortion and the state’s rate of problems in clinics is lower than the national average. The grisly “abortion mill” headlines are coming from religious right-to-life groups.

In his ruling, Judge Lee Yeakel was unequivocal about how both laws impact women’s health: both requirements are a “burden” for women. Requiring abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at hospitals “places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus and is thus an undue burden to her,” says the opinion. 

During the hundreds of hours of debate on these bills in July, I was struck by the testimony of Dr. Bradley Price, who spelled out how restricting access to clinics would make women's health worse in the state. He recalled when he first started practicing medicine 40 years ago, women would often come into his office with infections from botched abortions.

"There's no reason to go back to the bad old days," said Dr. Price, who used to perform abortions but no longer does. "This [bill] is not coming from doctors, this is coming from politicians."


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