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Justices block Texas abortion law

Supreme-Court-buildingBy Tony Mauro From Legal Times

The U.S. Supreme Court late Tuesday halted enforcement of several parts of a federal appeals court ruling that shuttered abortion clinics throughout Texas.

Over the objection of three conservative justices, the court vacated an Oct. 2 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that gave a green light to provisions of a Texas law that restricted the operation of clinics in the state. The appeal court had triggered the closing of all but a handful of clinics in the state.

The high court’s brief order in Whole Woman’s Health v. Lakey had the effect of blocking the law’s requirement that clinics meet standards for ambulatory surgery centers statewide. It also in effect reinstated an August district court ruling that struck down the law’s requirement that clinic doctors obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals, at least in the area of McAllen and El Paso.

Abortion rights advocates had argued the restrictions amounted to an “undue burden” on women’s access to abortions, but the Fifth Circuit dismissed their concerns and allowed the law to take effect temporarily. The full Fifth Circuit on Oct. 9 declined to revisit the issue.

The high court’s order did not explain the reasoning for its action. But it appeared to signal that a majority of the court agreed, at least provisionally, that the Texas law imposed an undue burden on women. That is the standard for evaluation abortion restrictions that the Supreme Court adopted in the 1992 Casey decision that preserved the abortion right declared in the 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade.

The order noted that Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. would have allowed the Fifth Circuit ruling to take effect.

“The U.S. Supreme Court gave Texas women a tremendous victory today,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represented Texas clinics. “Tomorrow, thirteen clinics across the state will be allowed to reopen and provide women with safe and legal abortion care in their own communities.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement, “We’re seeing the terrible impact these restrictions have on thousands of Texas women who effectively no longer have access to safe and legal abortion. We’re relieved that the court stepped in to stop this, and we hope this dangerous law is ultimately overturned completely.”

The order on Tuesday does not end the legal wrangling, which will continue as the Fifth Circuit continues to evaluate the constitutionality of the Texas law.

IMAGE: U.S. Supreme Court (Oct. 5, 2014) Photo by Michael A. Scarcella/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL

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