Judge Strikes Down New Texas Abortion Restrictions

Law Would Have Required Clinics to Qualify as ‘Ambulatory Surgical Centers’

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    Updated Aug. 29, 2014 6:52 p.m. ET
    AUSTIN, Texas—A federal judge on Friday blocked a portion of a new state law set to take effect Monday that would have required abortion clinics to qualify as “ambulatory surgical centers,” a rule that could have shuttered many clinics in the state.

    U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, ruled that the surgery-center requirement places “an unconstitutional undue burden on women throughout Texas and must be enjoined.”

    The suit was filed by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of abortion providers in the state.

    The judge also ruled that an abortion clinic in El Paso and another one in McAllen could be excused from the admitting-privileges requirement, concluding that the requirement, when combined with the surgery-center rule, imposes an undue burden on women in those parts of the state.

    Nancy Northup, the Center’s president and chief executive, said the ruling made clear “that rights protected by the U.S. Constitution may not be denied through laws that make them impossible to exercise.”

    The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which defended the law, said it would appeal the ruling. “The State disagrees with the court’s ruling and will seek immediate relief,” said a spokeswoman for the office.

    The suit is the latest challenge to the abortion law, which was enacted last year and includes other provisions that have already taken effect, including a restriction on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and a requirement that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

    Last year, ruling in a separate suit, Judge Yeakel struck down the Texas law’s admitting-privileges requirement. That ruling was later overturned by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the law in March. The Fifth Circuit ruling is on appeal.

    The admitting-privileges rule has already forced half of the state’s abortion clinics to shut their doors, leaving swaths of the sprawling state without any abortion providers.

    Abortions-rights groups say that many poorer women, particularly in South Texas along the Mexican border, don’t have the resources to travel to abortion clinics and have been forced to resort to unsafe alternatives. They say the real intent of the Texas law was to effectively deny many their rights to an abortion under the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

    More clinic closures are expected if abortion providers must also qualify as ambulatory surgical centers. Currently, only seven clinics, located in the state’s five biggest cities, qualify as surgery centers.

    But supporters of the law say it will improve women’s health by imposing more rigorous quality-control standards on clinics.

    “The ambulatory-surgical-center rule requires providers to have more emergency accommodations in place than they currently have in the event something goes wrong,” said Emily Horne, a legislative associate with Texas Right to Life. “The new law makes clinics safer for women.”

    Write to Nathan Koppel at nathan.koppel@wsj.com

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