The XX Factor

Court Ruling Destroys Abortion Access in Texas, Shutting Down All But Eight Clinics in the State  

Texans protest in favor of abortion rights.

Photo by Jana Birchum/Getty Images

In a devastating move Thursday night, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals removed a district court judge’s stay on a new Texas law that will dramatically reduce abortion access for women in the state, particularly for poor, young, or rural women. The 5th Circuit Court recently upheld a provision of the law requiring doctors to have hospital admitting privileges, a move that shut down half of abortion providers in the state. This latest move upholds the provision that requires abortion clinics to be outfitted to meet ambulatory surgical standards, even in cases where the woman is merely aborting by taking a pill. Starting Friday, all but eight clinics in the state of Texas will close, where once there were more than 40.

In 2011, the last year for which the Guttmacher Institute has statistics, 73,000 women in Texas had an abortion. That means that with eight clinics, each clinic would have to stay open 365 days a year, doing more than 25 abortions a day to keep up. There is simply no way for those clinics to handle that demand. But many women won’t be able to get to them anyway. “All of the clinics west and south of San Antonio have closed, leaving a large swath of the state without abortion services,” the Washington Post reports. “Residents of the Rio Grande valley will be at least 230 miles from the nearest abortion clinic.” 

One in six Texas women of reproductive age will need to make a round trip of 300 miles or more to get an abortion. This would seem like it’s a violation of a Supreme Court ruling in 1992 that held an abortion law should be considered unconstitutional if a “large fraction” of women experienced “a substantial obstacle” in getting an abortion. The 5th Circuit, however, elided this rule by simply denying that one in six women counts as a “large fraction.”

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists denounced the bill when it was in debate last year. “The bills are not based on sound science, despite our efforts to provide the legislature with the best available medical knowledge,” explained ACOG Texas district chair Dr. Lisa Hollier. “The bills would erode women’s health by denying the women of Texas the benefits of well-researched, safe, and proven protocols.” The fact that this is terrible for women’s health is not a debatable topic, for people arguing in good faith. The alternatives to legal abortion—illegal abortion and forced childbirth—are both known to be less safe than legal abortion. Childbirth, in fact, is 14 times as likely to kill you

Despite these well-known, well-publicized facts, Texas Republicans are keeping up the pretense that these regulations are to help women, not harm them. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor of the state against Wendy Davis, applauded the decision. “This decision is a vindication of the careful deliberation by the Texas Legislature to craft a law to protect the health and safety of Texas women,” Lauren Bean, speaking on behalf of his campaign said. She did not elaborate on how a law that so severely limits access to women’s legal right to a safe abortion helps protect them at all.  

While there is much legal wrangling ahead over this law, in an unusual move, Fifth Circuit Justice Jennifer Walker Elrod highlighted how much her decision differed from that of other appeals courts who have weighed in on similar laws. “By calling attention to disagreement among circuit court judges regarding the proper way to resolve abortion cases,” writes legal analyst Ian Millhiser at Think Progress, “Elrod sent a blood-red howler to the Supreme Court telling them to ‘TAKE THIS CASE!’” Stay tuned. I hope they do. But the prospect of a favorable Supreme Court decision down the road does nothing for the women of Texas today, the ones who need an abortion right now, and have just had their safe and legal options severely limited.