HOUSTON — A federal appeals court allowed most of Texas' new abortion restrictions to take effect immediately, lifting an injunction Thursday that had suspended much of the law.
The decision came three days after U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin blocked restrictions that he found unconstitutional, including one that requires doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and another that limits medication-induced abortions.
But a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans sided with Texas officials, who had requested an emergency stay of Yeakel's injunction so the new law could take effect while a lawsuit challenging the measure moved forward.
Planned Parenthood and other opponents of the law argued that requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges would force many clinics to close, effectively depriving 22,000 women of access to services.
The appellate jurists found the state had offered sufficient evidence that the requirement protected women's health and that the restrictions "do not impose a substantial obstacle to abortions."
"The district court's conclusion that a state has no rational basis for requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital is but one step removed from repudiating the long-standing recognition by the [U.S.] Supreme Court that a state may constitutionally require that only a physician may perform an abortion," Circuit Judge Priscilla Owen wrote on behalf of the panel, which also included Circuit Judges Jennifer Elrod and Catharina Haynes.
Owen emphasized that the panel was not ruling on the law itself, just on the injunction. But she also wrote that the state was likely to prevail in restricting medication abortions, and that there was a "substantial likelihood" that the state would "prevail in its argument that Planned Parenthood failed to establish an undue burden on women seeking abortions" or that the admitting-privileges requirement was a "substantial obstacle" for them.
Owen wrote that the trial judge's limits on medication abortions were "broader than necessary" but she did not entirely lift that part of the injunction. Instead, she added a small exception to allow such abortions for women who are a couple of months pregnant when a doctor determines that, "due to a physical abnormality or preexisting condition of the mother, a surgical abortion is not a safe and medically sound option."
She said the appeals court would hear the full case in January. She acknowledged the possibility "that requiring all physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital may increase the cost of accessing an abortion provider and decrease the number of physicians available to perform abortions."
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Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott praised the ruling.
"This unanimous 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," he said in a statement.
Supporters of the new law were also encouraged.
"We're thrilled at the action and that the 5th Circuit finds likely merits to the case," said Emily Horne, a legislative associate at Houston-based Texas Right to Life.
But Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, reiterated her opposition.
"This restriction clearly violates Texas women's constitutional rights by drastically reducing access to safe and legal abortion statewide," she said in a statement. She vowed to "take every step we can to protect the health of Texas women in the wake of this ruling."
Planned Parenthood said the appeals court had made access to "safe and legal abortion virtually impossible for one-third of Texas women."
When Texas lawmakers were poised to pass the new abortion restrictions this summer, state Sen. Wendy Davis drew national attention by initially blocking them with a daylong filibuster. But Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is retiring, called a second special legislative session, at which the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the law.
Davis, a Democrat, is now running for governor, as is Abbott, a Republican.
Opponents of admitting privileges requirements have blocked them in Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota and Wisconsin. State courts in North Dakota and Oklahoma have struck down restrictions on medication abortion.
Mississippi passed a law similar to Texas' last year, and faced similar legal challenges. After a federal judge blocked the law pending a trial in March, the state's attorney general asked the 5th Circuit to lift a temporary stay and allow the law to be enforced in the interim, but the appellate court refused.