Federal Judge Blocks Texas Abortion Restrictions

Regulations passed in Texas, which affected clinics that perform abortions there, were set to go into effect on Sept. 1. On Friday, a federal judge blocked those regulations, on the grounds that they unconstitutionally restricted access to legal abortion.

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A federal judge in Texas today blocked new abortion regulations that were set to take effect there next month. Abortion providers had sued, arguing the law would unconstitutionally restrict access to legal abortion. It's one of several legal challenges around the country to new state laws that target the clinics and doctors who perform abortions. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins me now. And Debbie, the Texas law, well, remember got attention last summer when State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered to try to block it. She wasn't successful. And then abortion rights groups turned to the courts. Tell us about this ruling today.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Right, they scored a victory today when a federal judge blocked enforcement of one of the provisions of that law. This provision would have required that clinics that perform abortions meet the same standards as outpatient centers or ambulatory surgical centers. In other words, they would have to have the right equipment. They would have to have a certain width of hallways and the like - certain code requirements that they would have to live up to.

And during a trial this month, the Planned Parenthood and some of the other clinics told the court that if these rules went into effect, only eight of the clinics that were currently operating in Texas would still be able to remain open. And those are mainly in cities. So the impact would be mostly on rural women who would then have to drive possibly hundreds of miles to seek an abortion. And the judge agreed, finding the law to be, quote, "a brutally effective system of abortion regulation that creates a statewide burden for substantial numbers of Texas women." And that's sort of the crux of these lawsuits. The issue here for judges is whether state abortion laws pose an undue burden on a woman's right to abortion - that is, we recall, established by the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973.

BLOCK: So a victory in federal court for the abortion rights groups - a defeat for the Texas law. What happens now? How does the state respond?

ELLIOTT: Well, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says he will appeal the ruling and do it quickly, seeking immediate relief. So the state really wants this law to go into effect as planned on September 1. The next step would be the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The state has argued the law's intent is not to restrict abortion but to make sure that clinics are safe, an assertion that some medical groups have questioned. But still, Texas has had some success in arguing that it has a right to regulate abortion in this way. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the state can enforce another part of the abortion law and that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

So after that rule went into effect, nearly half of the clinics in Texas closed, because doctors weren't able to comply for a variety of reasons.

BLOCK: And Debbie, apart from Texas, there are a number of states that have been passing laws like this that target clinics and doctors who perform abortions.

ELLIOTT: Right. About half of the states have passed new regulations on abortion providers in the past decade. The most stringent of those coming mostly in the South and the Midwest. And abortion rights groups have argued what essentially is happening - that the ultimate effect of these will be a country where access to abortion depends on where you live. So they've gone to the courts for relief. And so far, it's been sort of a mixed bag of rulings.

This summer, an Alabama federal judge ruled that that state's admitting privileges law was unconstitutional. And the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Mississippi's admitting privileges law, even though it allowed Texas to enforce it. And the difference there was that Mississippi only had one clinic that performed abortions. And the court decided that that was an undue burden on the women there to have to travel out of state. So it's still trickling through the appellate courts. And as these different lawsuits in different states make their way through the courts, it could ultimately be a question that makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

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