AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A federal appeals court Thursday allowed Texas to immediately begin enforcing tough new abortion restrictions that will effectively close all but seven abortion facilities in America's second most-populous state.
A panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans stayed a lower judge's ruling while it considers the overall constitutionality of key portions of Texas' sweeping 2013 abortion law, which Republican Gov. Rick Perry and other conservatives say is designed to protect women's health.
The impact of the ruling will be most felt along the Texas-Mexico border and in the western half of the state, where access to a legal abortion is especially limited. The only abortion clinic in McAllen, which reopened after the lower court's ruling, now stands to close again. That would leave women in the area facing a 300-mile drive to the next-nearest abortion facility.
"Women from McAllen have been traveling outside their city for nearly a year and Plaintiffs made no showing that clinics in San Antonio (or any other city) have been deluged," the opinion read.
Abortion-rights groups that earlier prevailed in an Austin federal court bristled at having that victory taken away.
"Today's ruling has gutted Texas women's constitutional rights and access to critical reproductive health care and stands to make safe, legal abortion essentially disappear overnight," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled in August that part of the law requiring Texas clinics to spend millions of dollars on hospital-level upgrades was less about safety than making access to abortion difficult.
Yeakel's ruling in Austin suspended the upgrades requirement. But Texas asked the appeals court to let it enforce the law during the appeals process, clearing the way for the ruling Thursday.
Allowing to go forward the rules on hospital-level upgrades - including mandatory operating rooms and air filtration systems - would shutter more than a dozen clinics across Texas. It means only abortion facilities will remain open in the Houston, Austin, San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth areas.
None will be left along the Texas-Mexico border or outside any of the state's largest urban areas.
Meanwhile, some clinics have already closed after another part of the 2013 law required doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. That portion of the law has already been upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit, where the state is now seeking a second outright reversal.
The trial in Texas is the latest battle over tough new abortion restrictions sweeping across the U.S. The office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who is the favorite to become governor in November, is leading the defense of the law.
Clinics call the measure a backdoor effort to outlaw abortions, which has been a constitutional right since the Roe v. Wade ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.
Attorneys for the state have denied that women would be burdened by fewer abortion facilities, saying nearly 9 in 10 Texas women would still live within 150 miles of a provider. The law's opponents, however, note that still leaves nearly a million Texas women embarking on drives longer than three hours to get an abortion.
Democrat Wendy Davis launched her campaign for governor behind the celebrity she achieved through a nearly 13-hour filibuster last summer that temporarily blocked the law in the state Senate. Her opponent in November is Abbott.
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