Supreme Court blocks Texas abortion rules that closed most of state's clinics

Setting the stage for the likely next legal showdown over abortion, the high court blocked enforcement of abortion clinic regulations in the state. 

Mike Stone/Reuters/Files
Protesters rally in the rotunda of the State Capitol as the state Senate meets to consider legislation restricting abortion rights in Austin, Texas, July 12, 2013. The US Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked certain restrictions on abortion contained in a Texas state law. The high court granted a request filed by abortion rights groups that puts on hold parts of a federal appeals court decision that had allowed the law to go into effect.

A decision by the US Supreme Court to block enforcement of new abortion clinic regulations in Texas sets the stage for what is likely to become the next major showdown at the high court over abortion.

In a brief order issued late Tuesday, the justices reversed an appeals court decision that had allowed the new restrictions on abortion clinics in Texas to take full effect while the underlying legal challenge to the measure continues in the courts.

The new regulations require abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. They also require clinics to upgrade their facilities to the rigid standards of an ambulatory surgical center.

The two new requirements reduced the number of abortion clinics in Texas to seven, requiring many women to drive three or more hours to reach an open clinic. The Supreme Court action means that 13 clinics may be able to reopen during the pending litigation over the new rules.

Texas is one of 23 states that have enacted new regulations to require abortion clinics to upgrade their facilities to an ambulatory surgical standard. Ten states have enacted laws requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital.

Supporters of such measures say they help protect the health of women seeking abortions. Critics say they are designed to force abortion clinics out of business and make it more difficult for women to exercise their right to obtain an abortion.

The Supreme Court did not explain why it was placing much of the Texas law on hold, but it suggests that several of the justices believe the restrictions may create an undue burden on women seeking abortions.

The high court order blocked enforcement of the ambulatory surgical center requirement in all clinics in Texas. As to the admitting privileges requirement, the justices allowed continued enforcement of that provision except in two clinics in the cities of McAllen and El Paso.

The Supreme Court order notes that Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito would have allowed the Texas law to continue to be fully enforced during the litigation.

The litigation in Texas is only the most recent challenge to tough new abortion regulations. To date, courts have temporarily blocked five of the 10 state provisions requiring hospital admitting privileges. Many of these cases will ultimately arrive at the Supreme Court.

The blocked laws are in Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Wisconsin. An admitting privileges regulation is still in effect in Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and parts of Texas.

Of the 23 states requiring abortion clinics to maintain ambulatory surgical center standards, two – Kansas and Texas – have been blocked in the courts.

The case is Whole Woman’s Health v. Lakey (14A365).

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