U.S. Appeals Court Upholds Texas Abortion Restrictions

Jun 9, 2015
Originally published on June 10, 2015 7:06 am
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A federal appeals court has upheld key portions of a sweeping antiabortion law in Texas. Abortion opponents hailed the ruling. Abortion providers say they will appeal to the Supreme Court. Joining us is NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg. And Nina, what has happened here?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, the Texas abortion law is among the toughest in the country. Since it was adopted, the number of abortion clinics in the state has been cut in half from 40 two years ago to 17 now, and if today's decision is ultimately upheld, the number would likely fall to seven with clinics only in the most populous cities and no clinics west of San Antonio.

SIEGEL: And what were the specifics in this case?

TOTENBERG: Well, at issue are two provisions - the requirement that the clinics operate only with doctors who have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles and the provision requiring the clinics meet sort of mini-hospital standards, that they have wide corridors, certain sized rooms and other hospital-grade facilities. And most of the smaller clinics in the state simply cannot afford to meet those standards, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has filed briefs saying that the requirements aren't necessary. But a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in New Orleans, said that the courts cannot second-guess the legislature's avowed purpose of making abortions safer and that neither the admitting privileges at the hospital nor the other provision on mini-hospitals imposes an undue burden on a large fraction of women and therefore that it's constitutional.

SIEGEL: And the undue burden standard - that's the test the Supreme Court's established.

TOTENBERG: Yes. The court said in 1992 that while the state does have an interest in protecting unborn life, it cannot adopt abortion restrictions that impose an undue burden on a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy. And here, they said - the court said a large portion of the women in the state would not suffer an undue burden.

SIEGEL: A large portion - what about the small portion who would?

TOTENBERG: Well, the court noted that there are 5.4 million women of reproductive age in Texas and only 900,000 women who'd face travel distances of over 150 miles because of the two provisions at issue here.

SIEGEL: Nina, there were two clinics that if forced to close would leave women having to travel hundreds of miles, though, to get an abortion. The appeals court did give an exemption to one of the clinics in McAllen, Texas, but not to the other in El Paso. Why? What's the reason?

TOTENBERG: The court said it was not giving an exception to El Paso because women could go to a nearby clinic across the state line in New Mexico.

SIEGEL: And bottom line, what happens next? What does this mean in terms of the Supreme Court potentially revisiting the abortion question?

TOTENBERG: Well, the clinic said today they'll ask the 5th Circuit to temporarily block its own ruling to allow an appeal to the Supreme Court, and if the - and if they - it won't do that, it'll ask - go to the Supreme Court directly. The bottom line, as you put it - it'll be pretty hard for the Supreme Court not to deal with this. The court granted a stay once before preventing the many hospital requirements from going into effect in the 13-day period when those requirements were in effect before the Supreme Court acted. All but seven clinics had to close their doors.

SIEGEL: What the possibility is there that the Supreme Court could actually revisit the basic issue and say that abortion is no longer legal?

TOTENBERG: Well, it doesn't have to go that far. If it were to uphold the Texas law in its entirety, many other states would undoubtedly follow suit. Indeed, even more severe restrictions would likely follow, and in those states, abortions could become almost impossible to obtain. And it's not - it's really not clear where the Supreme Court is going on all of this.

SIEGEL: NPR's Nina Totenberg. Nina, thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.