Federal court upholds Louisiana abortion law ahead of landmark Supreme Court case

The ruling comes just days before the US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments about a similar law in Texas that requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges in nearby hospitals.

All but one or two providers of legal abortions in Louisiana could be forced to close under a decision by a US appeals court on Wednesday, a ruling that has sparked outrage among abortion law critics.

The Louisiana-based 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request from the state to put into effect a 2014 law that requires doctors providing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.

The ruling comes at a time when intense legal and economic pressures have forced the closure of more than 100 abortion clinics across the United States. The issue has gained recent prominence in the wake of accusations that Planned Parenthood has been profiting from the sale of fetal tissue (a claim that state and federal investigators have been unable to confirm) and as the US Supreme Court prepares to hear a case regarding a similar law in Texas. 

Supporters of admitting privileges requirements say the laws are meant to protect women's health by ensuring continuity of care in the event of complications. Opponents say they are aimed at shutting clinics and to make it virtually impossible for women to get abortions.

In January, US District Judge John deGravelles barred the state of Louisiana from enforcing the restriction in a temporary victory for abortion clinics and their providers. The appellate court overturned his decision.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights group, said it would appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court. It argues that the regulation serves no public health purpose because abortion complications are rare and can be treated by emergency room medical staff when they do occur.

"The effect (of the ruling) is proving devastating on women's ability to access safe and legal abortion services in Louisiana," David Brown, a staff lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights told The Associated Press.

Louisiana's law is among hundreds of abortion restrictions passed across the country in recent years. The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on March 2 about a similar restriction in neighboring Texas. About 50 percent of abortion clinics in the state have closed since the 2013 law went into effect.

Abortion clinics have been shuttered at a record pace all across the United States – and not just in conservative states.  A recent Bloomberg investigation found that at least 162 clinics have closed or stopped offering the procedure since 2011. As Henry Gass reported for The Christian Science Monitor earlier this week:

Both supporters and critics of abortion attribute the decline to a range of factors, from high operating costs and reduced demand, to the rise of strict state regulations. And both sides say the abortion debate in America is reaching a seminal moment. 

The vast majority – 94 percent – of pregnancy terminations are conducted in stand-alone clinics, as opposed to hospitals or doctor's offices. The number of these facilities that perform 400 or more abortions a year has dropped from a peak of 705 in the late 1980s to 553 in 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank that supports reproductive rights.

This report includes material from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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