Texas and Louisiana abortion laws blocked, but are clinics disappearing?

Two federal court decisions in Texas and Louisiana have delayed the closure of many abortion clinics. But nationwide, the number of clinics is shrinking.

Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman/AP
Abortion rights supporters protest outside the governor’s mansion Friday after a federal judge in Austin struck down two provisions of the 2013 Texas law that restricts abortions.

In a matter of three days, two judges might have kept as many as 19 abortion clinics in Texas and Louisiana open – at least temporarily.

On Friday, a federal judge in Texas blocked implementation of a Texas law that would have required abortion clinics in the state to meet the standards of hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers. On Sunday, a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the state from closing down abortion clinics where doctors did not have patient-admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their practice.

Abortion-rights advocates say the laws could have resulted in the closing of 14 of Texas' 20 abortion clinics and all five of Louisiana's.

Supporters of such laws say they are intended to keep women safe; opponents say they are a thinly-veiled effort by conservatives to close as many abortion clinics as possible. Indeed, since 2010, laws like the ones in Texas and Louisiana have swept through red states where Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the governor's seat.

The result, according to all sides of the abortion debate, has been a historic decline in the number of abortion clinics in the United States.

Texas is a case study. One year ago, before Texas passed a suite of laws tightening regulations on abortion clinics, some 40 clinics existed in the state, according to a report by Kaiser Health News. By July, that number had dwindled to 20 because of one of the new Texas laws, which required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

The idea, proponents said, was to ensure an abortion doctor wouldn't just dump a woman on a hospital's doorstep if something went wrong. Critics counter that less than 1 percent of abortion procedures result in hospitalization.

Now, a second Texas law was going to ramp up restrictions further, requiring that clinics meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. If it had not been blocked Friday, another 14 clinics might have closed, the Kaiser report estimates. Texas is appealing the ruling.

On a national scale, the trend line is clear, though the numbers are in dispute. Separate investigations by The Huffington Post and Bloomberg came to similar conclusions, but one by an anti-abortion rights group suggests a steeper decline.

The Huffington Post report published in August 2013 found that at least 54 abortion clinics closed between 2010 and 2013 in 27 states. The Bloomberg report, published a month later, found that at least 58 clinics had closed in 24 states. Both reports said that many states could not confirm numbers, and so were left out of the tally. And both said that red state laws were not the only factor in the decline.

But the laws were a primary driver, and the overall numbers represent a rate of closure more than double what was happening in the decade before 2008, Bloomberg notes.

"This kind of change is incredibly dramatic," Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, told The Huffington Post. "What we've been seeing since 1982 was a slow decline, but this kind of change ... [is] so different from what's happened in the past."

In an annual report in December 2013, anti-abortion group Operation Rescue painted an even more dire picture, suggesting that a record 87 surgical abortion clinics closed in 2013. (The Huffington Post and Bloomberg surveys did not focus solely on clinics that did surgical abortions, but also those that performed abortions through medications.)

According to Operation Rescue's numbers:

The total number of surgical abortion clinics left in the U.S. is now 582. This represents an impressive 12% net decrease in surgical abortion clinics in 2013 alone, and a 73% drop from a high in 1991 of 2,176.

The Guttmacher Institute's numbers, though older and compiled differently, suggest a less-dramatic overall decline. The number of clinics performing 400 abortions a year has declined from 705 in the late 1980s to 591 in 2008.

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