Texas Judge Rules Abortion Law Unconstitutional

A federal judge has invalidated parts of a Texas abortion regulations law that were set to take effect Friday. The state vows to appeal the ruling to the federal Fifth Circuit appellate court.

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In Texas, a federal judge has ruled that the state's new abortion restrictions are unconstitutional and will not take effect tomorrow as scheduled. The decision comes four months after Democratic candidate for governor, Wendy Davis, staged an 11-hour filibuster against the proposed constraints. Texas' attorney general expressed disappointment and vowed to appeal the federal judge's ruling.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn joins us now from Dallas to discuss the case. And, Wade, there were two parts to Judge Lee Yeakel's ruling. What did he say?

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Well, he ruled that the state's new requirements that doctors and abortion clinics have admitting privileges in a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic were unconstitutional. Texas had argued that it was acting in defense of the fetus and the medical well-being of the mother. The state's rationale was that having admitting privileges would enhance communication between abortion doctors and emergency room physicians. But Judge Yeakel did not find that argument very compelling.

He pointed to testimony from emergency room doctors who testified in his court that there was absolutely no difference in the treatment of emergency room patients. It made no difference as to whether those patients' doctors had in hospital admitting privileges or not. And the judge pointed to the fact that in some regions of Texas, these new requirements would leave dozens of Texas counties without access to an abortion provider because their abortion doctors were not likely to get hospital admitting privileges. And therefore, that circumstance placed an undue burden on a woman's right to have access to an abortion and so it is unconstitutional.

CORNISH: And the judge did uphold some restrictions on medication abortions. What were the reasons there?

GOODWYN: Well, I mean, he did with some important caveats. When the FDA first approved abortions through medication 13 years ago, the agency relied on the then-established protocols at the time. Over time, though, the medical profession has lowered the initial dose of medication by a third and allowed the second dose of medication to be self-administered in the comfort of the woman's home a day or two later. This protocol has been working well and it allows the woman to make just one visit to the abortion clinic. And over the last decade, it's become what is known as the evidence-based protocol.

But Texas' new restrictions would require the woman to come to the abortion clinic three times, receive both doses at the clinic and receive the first dose of medication at the original high dose. The judge agreed with Planned Parenthood and its legal allies here that these new restrictions were a burden on women and perhaps less than ideal but that the new restrictions do not rise to the level of an unconstitutional burden on a woman's right to an abortion.

However, and this is a big however, the judge said if the woman's doctor wants to revert to the current medication abortion protocol because that doctor believes it furthers the preservation of their patient's health, the doctor can do so without fear of prosecution. And that's an exception you can drive a truck through.

CORNISH: Now, the ruling is considered a political victory for Planned Parenthood and their allies but the case isn't settled. So what happens next?

GOODWYN: Well, the state of Texas is appealing its decision as we speak to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. That's one of the most conservative appeals courts in the country and a place where Texas may well find relief from Judge Yeakel's ruling. But if Yeakel is reversed, there's little question, I think, that the case is then going to go the U.S. Supreme Court. It's evident that Texas is determined to push the envelope on ways it can restrict abortion in the state. This case pushes the boundaries and restrictions further than they've ever been. I suspect the Supreme Court is going to want to have the final say on this.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Wade Goodwyn in Dallas. Wade, thank you.

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.

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