The Fifth Circuit court of appeals heard oral arguments for and against Texas's new restrictive abortion laws on Monday. Given the court's pretty consistent record against reproductive rights, the day went more or less as one might expect: the Fifth Circuit, which overturned a lower court's decision to halt the law from going into effect as it's appealed, seems likely to side with the state over the constitutionality of the controversial measure.
The lawsuit in question challenges just a portion of the law's provisions: a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges as a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic, and another measure restricting drug-induced abortions. District Judge Lee Yeakel sided with plaintiffs in October, writing that the admitting privileges restriction was "without a rational basis, and places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus."Texas argues that the new laws protect women's safety.
Arguably the most dramatic effect of the admitting privileges requirement is visible in the Rio Grande valley, as Lindsay Beyerstein reported on earlier on Monday. The only two clinics in the region closed because of the requirement, meaning women there must travel hundreds of miles in order to access a clinic in San Antonio. This, the plaintiffs argue, creates an undue burden on women seeking an abortion in that region.
During Monday's hearing, Judge Edith Jones of the three-judge Fifth Circuit was pretty skeptical of the plaintiffs' case, taking particular issue with the hardship of women who must now travel hundreds of miles for the procedure. She also took some time to make jokes about an estimate from abortion rights activists that about a third of the clinics in the state could close under the law. The Dallas News reports:
She also pointed out that while abortion rights groups argued more than one-third of the doctors would have to quit practicing because of the new law, some of those doctors have been able to obtain admitting privileges. She asked Crepps if she would inform the court when more doctors get privileges, adding cryptically, “or have you notified the New York Times?”
Twelve of the state's 34 clinics closed when the new law went into effect in November, about a third of the state's abortion-providing facilities. Since then, three clinics have re-opened as doctors gain admitting privileges. Should Texas's law stand, the number will continue to fluctuate. While it's likely that even more doctors will gain the required admitting privileges, clinics will face a new requirement to operate as an ambulatory surgical center by September 2014.
The Louisiana-based appeals court will now review the case and make a decision on both the admitting privileges and drug-induced abortion restrictions. The court gave no indication of how long it would take to release its findings in the case, which could very well be headed for consideration at the Supreme Court.