A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld strict new regulations for abortion providers in Texas, reversing an earlier ruling that had declared the controversial measure unconstitutional.
The Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals said the federal judge applied the wrong legal standards and had offered no evidence to support his conclusion that the new regulations had no purpose other than to create a barrier to women seeking abortions.
At issue is a 2013 Texas abortion law that requires doctors performing abortions in the state to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic.
Similar laws passed in five other states have been blocked in the courts.
Women’s rights groups charged that the Texas requirement could cause up to one-third of the abortion clinics in the state to close. They said the requirement imposes an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose an abortion. US District Judge Lee Yeakel agreed and struck down the law.
In reversing that ruling on Thursday, the three-judge appeals court panel said the judge took the wrong legal approach by failing to defer to the judgment of Texas lawmakers.
“It is not the court’s duty to second guess legislative factfinding, ‘improve’ on, or ‘cleanse’ the legislative process by allowing relitigation of the facts that led to the passage of the law,” Appeals Court Judge Edith Jones wrote for the court.
She said that under the required legal test “courts must presume that the law in question is valid and sustain it so long as the law is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”
Judge Jones said the state’s legislative objectives “easily supplied a connection between the admitting-privileges rule and the desirable protection of abortion patients’ health.”
She noted that roughly 210 women in Texas each year must be hospitalized after an abortion. Requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges could enhance a patient’s treatment during a hospitalization, she said.
As for the federal judge’s finding that many clinics may have to close because of the new admitting privileges requirement, Judge Jones said that judicial finding was “too vague.”
“Although some clinics may be required to shut their doors, there is no showing whatsoever that any woman will lack reasonable access to a clinic within Texas,” Jones wrote.
“All of the major Texas cities … continue to have multiple clinics where many physicians will have or obtain hospital admitting privileges,” she said.
Jones noted that Planned Parenthood (an abortion provider in Texas) had submitted evidence to the federal judge showing that more than 90 percent of Texas women would be able to obtain an abortion at a clinic within 100 miles of their homes even if the new law went into effect.
Jones said: “This does not constitute an undue burden in a large fraction of the relevant cases.”
Reaction to the ruling from women rights groups was swift and harsh.
“This is a terrible court ruling that will severely limit a woman’s access to safe and legal abortion in Texas,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.
“This court ruling is not the last word,” she said in a statement. “We are fighting on every front on behalf of women across Texas who are counting on us.”
She said her organization would continue to provide abortion services, combat such laws, and work to mobilize voters “to replace lawmakers who champion these dangerous laws in the first place.”
“This is an extremely disappointing day for Texas women, especially those living in rural and poor areas most harmed by this politically motivated law,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas.
“The law does nothing to protect women’s health,” she said in a statement. “Instead, it severely limits women’s medical options.”
The case began as a lawsuit filed in September 2013 seeking to block implementation of the new abortion clinic regulations. The suit is being litigated on behalf of more than a dozen health care providers by lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Lawyers challenging the law can ask the full Fifth Circuit court to review the three-judge decision. The lawyers may also ask the US Supreme Court to take up the case.
The case is Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas Surgical Health Services v. Abbott (13-51008).