The Texas Abortion Bill Will Have Is Day in Court—Supreme Court

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 15 2013 6:00 PM

Will the Supreme Court Mess with Texas?

Because that’s where the state’s abortion bill is headed.

Texas state Democratic Senator Wendy Davis listens as the state Senate meets to consider legislation restricting abortion rights in Austin, Texas.
The Texas abortion bill that Wendy Davis filibustered has now become law, and it could be headed for the Supreme Court.

Photo by Mike Stone/Reuters

The Texas abortion restrictions that passed last week could close most of the clinics in the state and send women across the border to Mexico for pills that induce miscarriage in the first trimester. It’s also the big new abortion law with the best chance of landing before the Supreme Court.

I don’t say that lightly.  Many of the scores of restrictions the states have passed since the 2010 elections (when Republicans took over a whole bunch of statehouses) will meet their end in the lower courts. Unless and until Roe is overturned, they are clearly unconstitutional, and most judges will say so and strike them down. Other laws so far have gone unchallenged, either because they don’t affect many women seeking abortions (this is true for 20-week bans in states where doctors haven’t been doing, or at least say they don’t do, late-term procedures anyway) or just haven’t gotten attention from pro-choice lawyers yet. But the Texas bill is too big to ignore. It threatens to take away access to abortion—in the first trimester as well as later—from tens of thousands of women. Abortion rights advocates have to challenge it in court. And when they do, the case will wind up in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. That is a court with judges who have clearly signaled their interest in upholding abortion restrictions if they possibly can. The 5th Circuit’s eventual ruling could well conflict with the decision of other appeals courts—creating the kind of split that the Supreme Court is supposed to resolve.

The Texas abortion bill imposes four sets of restrictions. It bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy (making Texas the 12th state with a 20- or 18-week ban, according to the Guttmacher Institute). It requires clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers, a favorite kind of TRAP law. (TRAP stands for targeted regulations of abortion providers.) This provision compels clinics to come up with the money to widen hallways so patients can be carried out on stretchers, and provide large and expensively equipped recovery rooms. In other words, it costs a lot of money to comply with, which is why some clinics say they will have to shut their doors, which is why it’s a popular way to fight abortion these days.

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Another TRAP provision: a requirement that abortion providers must have admitting privileges at a local hospital—if no hospital will grant them, then no abortions (never mind that hospitals have to take patients in an emergency no matter what). And the fourth part of the law requires doctors to be in the room when women take the pills that induce abortions, rather than conferencing by phone or video while a nurse or physician’s assistant oversees patients’ care.

In other words, Texas has taken all the blossoming legal ideas of the anti-abortion movement and rolled them up into one big bouquet. This fits with the state’s history. As Mimi Swartz pointed out in an excellent 2012 piece for the Texas Monthly, “ferocious GOP primary wars” have turned the abortion debate into “a contest over who can move furthest to the right.” The ratcheting up of restrictions started in 1999, when legislators passed a parental notification law for minors. How quaint that now seems. The state also compelled doctors to give patients information about fetal health and development (including bogus claims that abortion is linked to problems in later pregnancies and higher rates of breast cancer). Next, the state compelled family planning facilities to split into two parts: one for birth control, checkups, and cancer screenings, and the other for abortions exclusively. (All the better for targeting the clinics with onerous regulations now.) The 5th Circuit upheld the division of services in 2005.

Texas wasn’t done. It stripped family planning aid from poor women and refused to accept $30 million in Medicaid for those same women. (All this in a state “where half of all pregnancies were unplanned in 2011, and 1 in 3 women of childbearing age lacks health insurance,” Jaeah Lee writes in Mother Jones.) Then in 2011, the state passed an ultrasound mandate, saying that women must undergo sonograms before abortions to “strengthen informed consent.” The law requires doctors to display the ultrasound image, describe the image of the fetus, and play the fetal heartbeat aloud. In the first trimester, this almost always requires a transvaginal ultrasound—the kind that Virginia legislators ran from in embarrassment after they turned into late-night comedy laughing stocks. The Texas law was already on the books by then, so the Saturday Night Live derision didn’t matter.

But a district court temporarily struck down the Texas ultrasound mandate. And this is—significantly—where the 5th Circuit comes back in. The appeals court rejected all the arguments against the law, one by one, in an opinion by Judge Edith Jones. The ultrasound mandate is merely “part of the state's reasonable regulation of medical practice,” Jones wrote. She didn’t see the law as invasive for patients or as interfering too far into the doctor-patient relationship. As Jones framed it, the law was simply about strengthening informed consent. “The point of informed consent laws is to allow the patient to evaluate her condition and render her best decision under difficult circumstances,” Jones wrote. “Denying her up to date medical information is more of an abuse to her ability to decide than providing the information.”

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