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A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court on Monday tossed out Texas abortion restrictions that would have closed more than half of the clinics in the state.
The ruling overturned the heart of the law known as House Bill 2, passed during the second of two tense special legislative sessions in 2013, leaving 19 abortion clinics operating in the state, with the possibility that more could open in the coming months or years.
Ten of those clinics would have closed if the court had upheld the Texas law, including the Austin Women’s Health Center.
The Supreme Court said the Texas rules -- requiring abortions to be performed in hospital-like settings and doctors to have admitting privileges in nearby hospitals -- combined to erect an improper barrier for women seeking abortions.
The ruling, 4½ months before the presidential election, is sure to have an impact on the race for the White House, with the winner being able to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s leading conservative voice.
Abortion providers sued to overturn two parts of HB 2, arguing that the rules were medically unnecessary and were instead intended to close clinics in an unconstitutional attempt to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for many women to get abortions.
Many doctors had difficulty gaining admitting privileges, abortion providers testified, because nearby hospitals opposed abortion, did not want to get involved in a controversial issue or required a certain number of annual admissions that abortion doctors could not meet.
Providers also said abortion, a relatively safe procedure, was not made safer by the surgical-center rules, adding that it was prohibitively expensive, in some cases several million dollars, to renovate existing clinics or build new facilities to create hospital-like settings that call for fully equipped operating rooms, sterile ventilation systems, wide hallways, emergency power and other requirements found in 117 pages of state regulations.
Led by Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, state officials argued that HB 2 was intended to protect the health and safety of women.
Paxton told the court that requiring all abortions to be performed in accredited surgical centers, would guarantee that women received high-quality treatment while ensuring that Texas would not see a repeat of Kermit Gosnell, a Pennsylvania abortion doctor who is serving life in prison in the murder of three infants born alive after late-term abortions and in the death of a patient. Investigators found bloodstained furniture, unsterilized instruments and bags of remains stored in Gosnell’s clinic.
Paxton also said the admitting privileges rule ensured that abortion doctors would continue caring for patients who experience complications after an abortion -- a claim that professional groups disputed, saying that most complications occur hours or days after the procedure, and women typically seek help from a hospital closest to their home, not the clinic.
The Texas case set the stage for the most significant decision on abortion rights since the 1990s by offering better direction to lower courts as well as state legislators on the increasingly thorny question of how much regulation is too much when it comes to laws that could shut down clinics.
The high court has said since 1992 that state regulations cannot pose an “undue burden,” a nebulous standard that left a lot of room for interpretation on which laws placed a substantial obstacle in the paths of women seeking abortions.
Ten states have enacted admitting privileges rules, for example, but courts have blocked enforcement in six of those states.