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The U.S. Supreme Court is once again entering the debate over abortion. The court said today it will hear arguments later this term testing the constitutionality of a sweeping abortion law in Texas. If upheld, it would allow the kind of major abortion restrictions not permitted in more than 40 years. NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Texas set the gold standard for tough abortion statutes two years ago. And this summer, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, upheld the law. The Supreme Court by a 5 to 4 vote temporarily blocked the ruling from going into effect. But if the High Court follows suit, the number of clinics in Texas would drop from the 40 that existed when the law was passed to just nine or 10 clinics in major cities. That would leave some 900,000 women of childbearing age to drive more than 300 miles round-trip to get an abortion. And nationally, it would give the go-ahead to dozens of similar provisions that until now have been blocked by the lower courts. The Texas law has two key provisions. First, it requires that all doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion takes place. But because the complication rate from abortion is so miniscule, most abortion providers cannot meet the minimum number of admittances that hospitals require in order to grant privileges. Second, the law requires that abortion clinics be retrofitted to meet elaborate hospital-grade standards that do not apply to all other outpatient facilities, where procedures like liposuction and colonoscopies take place. The provision also applies to doctors who provide medication abortions, which involve giving patients two pills and sending them home. The state of Texas defends the statute, containing it was enacted to protect women's health and safety. That assertion is disputed by the American Medical Association, which does not usually take a position in abortion cases, and the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, as well as other major medical groups. In a brief filed in the case, they contend the law not only fails to enhance safety, it impedes it. The Texas case represents the most comprehensive challenge to the court's rulings on abortions since 1993, when the justices cut back on their 1973 Roe versus Wade decision and allowed states greater leeway in regulating abortion. Back then, the court said states could try to persuade women not to have an abortion by requiring a 24-hour waiting period and counseling before an abortion. But at the end of the day, the High Court said states may not place an undue burden on a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy. And on the subject of health care regulation specifically, the court said that unnecessary regulations that present a substantial obstacle to a woman exercising her abortion right amount to an undue burden. The Fifth Circuit in upholding the Texas law said it did not consider a 300-mile roundtrip for nearly a million women of childbearing age to be a substantial burden because that number of women potentially affected was nowhere near a large fraction of the state's 5.4 million women of childbearing age. It also said that under the Supreme Court's prior decisions, it was required to defer to the state's asserted rational justification for the law - protecting women's health - even if that assertion is not supported by empirical evidence. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.