AUSTIN, Texas — A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that most of Texas' tough new abortion restrictions can take effect immediately — a decision that means at least 12 clinics won't be able to perform the procedure starting as soon as Friday.
A panel of judges at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said the law requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital can take effect while a lawsuit challenging the restrictions moves forward. The panel issued the ruling three days after District Judge Lee Yeakel said the provision serves no medical purpose.
In its 20-page ruling, the appeals court panel acknowledged that the provision "may increase the cost of accessing an abortion provider and decrease the number of physicians available to perform abortions." However, the panel said that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that having "the incidental effect of making it more difficult or more expensive to procure an abortion cannot be enough to invalidate" a law that serves a valid purpose, "one not designed to strike at the right itself."
The panel left in place a portion of Yeakel's order that prevents the state from enforcing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration protocol for abortion-inducing drugs in cases where the woman is between 50 and 63 days into her pregnancy. Doctors testifying before the court had said such women would be harmed if the protocol were enforced.
After Yeakel halted the restrictions, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had made an emergency appeal to the conservative 5th Circuit, arguing that the law requiring doctors to have admitting privileges is a constitutional use of the Legislature's authority.
"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," Abbott, a Republican who is running for governor, said in a written statement.
Lawyers for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers had argued that the regulations do not protect women and would shut down a third of the 32 abortion clinics in Texas.
In a statement Thursday, Planned Parenthood said the appeals court decision means "abortion will no longer be available in vast stretches of Texas."
"This fight is far from over," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in the statement. "This restriction clearly violates Texas women's constitutional rights by drastically reducing access to safe and legal abortion statewide."
The court's order is temporary until it can hold a complete hearing, likely in January.
The restrictions are among the toughest in the nation and gained notoriety when Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis launched a nearly 13-hour filibuster against them in June. Davis has since launched her own gubernatorial campaign and could face Abbott in the November 2014 election. Republican Gov. Rick Perry has said he will not seek another term.
The law that the Legislature passed this summer also bans abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy and beginning in October 2014 requires doctors to perform all abortions in surgical facilities.
Officials for one chain of abortion clinics testified in the trial that Yeakel oversaw that they've tried to obtain admitting privileges for their doctors at 32 hospitals, but so far only 15 accepted applications and none have announced a decision. Many hospitals with religious affiliations will not allow abortion doctors to work there, while others fear protests if they provide privileges. Many have requirements that doctors live within a certain radius of the facility, or perform a minimum number of surgeries a year that must be performed in a hospital.