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After Court Ruling, 9 Abortion Providers in Texas End Services

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After Court Ruling, 9 Abortion Providers in Texas End Services

Picture of Becca  Aaronson

A quarter of Texas abortion providers suspend services after the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted an injunction by a federal district court that would have halted implementation of a state law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

This story is part of an ongoing series that 2013 Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism Grantee and National Health Journalism Fellow Becca Aaronson will write for the Texas Tribune on women's health care in the state.  For a complete look at Aaronson's extensive coverage, click here.

Photo by: Michael Stravato/Texas Tribune
Friday, November 1, 2013

After the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision Thursday to lift an injunction on new abortion regulations in Texas, at least nine abortion facilities — about a quarter of the state's abortion providers — have discontinued abortion services in light of the new law.

The court’s decision is “having an immediate impact starting today, and what that impact is depends on each woman and where she lives,” said Sarah Wheat, vice president for community affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. Planned Parenthood has discontinued abortion services at four Texas locations: Fort Worth, Austin, Waco and Lubbock. Wheat said staff members began calling patients to cancel appointments Thursday evening soon after the appellate ruling came down.

“Depending on that patient and what her circumstances are, we’re either referring her to another health center in that same community or telling her which cities she’ll have to travel to,” Wheat said.

A three-judge panel in the 5th Circuit court lifted a permanent injunction placed on the abortion regulations Monday by a federal district court. In a written opinion, the panel argued that the state was likely to succeed in its legal arguments. The court scheduled an expedited hearing for January 2014.

The appellate court's decision overrules U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s ruling that a provision in House Bill 2 that requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital imposed an undue burden on women seeking the procedure. Additionally, Yeakel ruled that it would be unconstitutional for the state to require physicians to follow federal standards for drug-induced abortions if a physician determined it would be safer for the woman to use a common evidence-based protocol.

"The law is in effect and facilities are required to comply effective immediately," Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Department of State Health Services said in an email. "The new requirements will be part of our review criteria when inspecting facilities."

Abortion opponents and several state leaders are praising the appellate court’s ruling.

“While the Supreme Court prohibits state legislatures from banning most abortions, states should have the right to protect women from dangerous abortion procedures,” Joe Pojman, the executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, said in a statement. He said the provisions would increase patient safety and lauded the appellate court for allowing them to take effect.

The appellate court’s decision “affirms our right to protect both the unborn and the health of the women of Texas,” Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement. “We will continue doing everything we can to protect a culture of life in our state.”

Wheat said the Planned Parenthood facilities that stopped performing abortions would remain open and continue providing other health services, such as cancer screenings, HIV testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Abortion providers have expressed concerns that the regulations would mean additional travel for women seeking abortion services. They worry that would cause women to delay services, which could put them at higher medical risk. Dr. Joseph Potter, a researcher with the Texas Public Policy Evaluation project at the University of Texas, has estimated a third of the state's abortion providers, or 13 facilities, could stop providing abortion services as a result of the hospital admitting privileges requirement. 

“It is a sad and dark day for women in Texas,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and chief executive officer of Whole Woman’s Health, said in a statement. She said Whole Woman’s Health is stopping abortion services at three of their five locations — in Fort Worth, San Antonio and McAllen — because those locations do not have a physician with hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the facility. Whole Woman’s Health facilities in Beaumont and Austin will continue to provide abortion services.

“Women who need our care will not have nowhere to turn and the staff and physicians in our clinics now face furlough and likely unemployment,” she said.

The only other abortion provider in the Rio Grande Valley, Reproductive Services in Harlingen, is also discontinuing abortion services, because its physician does not have hospital admitting privileges. That means the closest abortion facility to the Rio Grande Valley is now in Corpus Christi, which is more than 100 miles away from McAllen and Harlingen.

A separate Reproductive Services clinic in El Paso has also stopped providing abortion services. While there is an abortion facility in nearby New Mexico, the closest Texas abortion facilities to El Paso are in San Antonio and Dallas, which are more than 500 miles away. With abortion facilities in Midland and San Angelo recently shuttering, and with the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lubbock discontinuing abortion services, there are vast stretches of West Texas and the Panhandle without a nearby abortion provider.

Texas only allows abortions after 16 weeks gestation to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers. Although there are six ASCs in Texas that perform abortions, at least two — the Whole Woman’s Health facility in San Antonio and the Planned Parenthood facility in Fort Worth — have discontinued services after the appellate court ruling.

Two additional provisions in HB 2 remain unchallenged — a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, which took effect on Oct. 29, and a requirement that clinics meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, which takes effect in September 2014. 

While abortion opponents consider the appellate court's decision a victory, Emily Horne, a lobbyist for Texas Right to Life, said they're continuing their efforts to ensure the law is upheld. "It could be permanent, but it’s not yet," she said, "so we’re kind of waiting to see what happens with the trial in January."