NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- Texas defended its requirement that abortion clinics meet the standards of outpatient surgical centers in a federal appeals court Wednesday.
The hearing in New Orleans was the latest legal fight over a 2013 law that has led about half of the state's abortion clinics to close. A federal judge in Austin ruled in August that the surgical center regulation is unconstitutional because it would restrict too many women's access to abortion.
The Texas law, which passed at a second special legislative session in 2013, also banned abortion after 20 weeks unless carrying a pregnancy to term would risk a woman's life or cause her permanent injury, required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and set new restrictions on chemical abortions. The debate made Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis a national hero among pro-choice groups after she prevented the bill's passage during the first special session by staging a lengthy filibuster.
Supporters of the surgical center requirement argue it protects women's health. Opponents say only seven of the 20 or so remaining clinics meet the standard, all of them in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.
About one million Texas women would have to travel at least 150 miles to reach a clinic if the remaining facilities outside the five cities shut down, opponents argued.
The three appellate judges, all appointed by President George W. Bush, an abortion opponent and former Texas governor, hinted before a packed courtroom that they plan to reverse the lower court, at least in part.
"Wouldn't you agree that the district court's ruling was overly broad?" Judge Catharina Haynes asked Stephanie Toth, a lawyer for the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York.
Toth responded that the requirement places such a burden on women seeking an abortion that in her view the ruling was appropriate.
The new rules on admitting privileges, which have survived legal challenge so far, have been responsible for shuttering most of the clinics that have closed. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, who defeated Davis in November and supported the new law as attorney general, and other state officials argue that traveling 150 miles is not a great burden and would affect only a fraction of Texas women. Abbott has also argued that women in West Texas can go to clinics in New Mexico if they wish.
But Amy Hagstrom Miller, head of Whole Women's Health, an abortion provider and a plaintiff in the case, said many women opt for methods that can be used at home if they do not have easy access to a clinic.
"So they've asked their partner to try to help induce a miscarriage," she told National Public Radio. "We've seen women who are drinking herbal teas and douching with various substances or trying to order medications on the Internet that they've heard may induce a miscarriage."