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Texas Abortion Law Blocked in Part by Federal Court

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on October 29, 2013 12:58 PM

A provision of Texas' controversial abortion law was blocked by a federal court in Austin on Monday, one day prior to its Tuesday effective date.

According to The New York Times, Monday's ruling may have changed the fate of one-third of Texas' abortion clinics, who would have been forced to close under the provision struck down by the federal district court.

What was the court's reasoning, and which parts of the law still stand?

Court Strikes Admitting Privileges Requirement

In Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, a suit that was brought in early October, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged Sections 2 and 3 of the recently passed Texas abortion law.

The reproductive rights groups' complaint alleged that the law requiring abortion doctors to have "admitting privileges" at local hospitals was not only unconstitutionally vague, but also presented an undue burden. The pertinent language of Section 2 required physicians to have "active admitting privileges" at a hospital no more than "30 miles" from the clinic, and the court found this to be an undue burden.

Although many critics of the undue burden standard in Planned Parenthood v. Casey would argue that courts rarely find state legislation to create such a burden. In this case, the Texas federal court found that the "admitting privileges" provision did constitute an undue burden -- largely because there was no rational basis for the law.

As the Abbott court relates, "no hospital can refuse to provide emergency care" to patients, admitting privileges or not. Neither is there a difference in the quality of care given to an admitted patient if her abortion provider lacks these privileges. The Abbott court could not find a rational relation between admitting privileges and the state's interest in protecting woman's health who is seeking an abortion, so the provision was ruled unconstitutional.

Undue Burdens -- Back to Basics

The Abbott decision is a good reminder of the constitutional parameters of abortion regulation cases, reminding us of three principles:

  1. The bright line is viability. The Supreme Court may have begun with the trimester system in Roe v. Wade, but Casey affirmed a woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy prior to fetal viability.
  2. Undue burdens on this right are unconstitutional. The state has no legitimate interest in fetal life that can outweigh a woman's rights prior to viability, so laws which place an undue burden on that right are unconstitutional.
  3. Medical necessity trumps fetal life. As gruesome as it may be, the state cannot promote fetal life -- even post-viability -- at the expense of the health or life of the mother (see Carhart).

Under these guiding principles the Abbott court struck down the admitting privileges provision of the Texas law, as well as carving out an exception for off-label abortion medication use when medically necessary.

Bottom Line

Although this case is now headed to the Fifth Circuit, this issue isn't going away soon. As the Times reports, Wendy Davis will be using the issue -- which she dramatically filibustered -- as a platform in her Texas gubernatorial campaign.

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