politics

Women's Health Care Providers Take Texas Abortion Fight to Supreme Court

Texas's harsh abortion restrictions could close all but eight clinics in the state. Women's groups are fighting back.

Callie Beusman

Callie Beusman

Photo via Flickr user Paul Sableman

Yesterday, several women's health care providers represented by the Center for Reproductive rights asked the US Supreme Court to review Texas's abortion restrictions, some of the harshest in the country. If the Supreme Court doesn't intervene, the law could permanently close all but eight abortion providers in the state—which reproductive health advocates fear would have a devastating effect on women's health, autonomy, and basic dignity.

In June a federal appellate court upheld Texas's draconian clinic requirements, which would make abortion virtually inaccessible in large parts of the state. Later that month, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked enforcement of the law, and women's health organizations vowed to the take the fight to the Supreme Court. Now, they're doing just that: In a petition filed yesterday, Texas-based providers and reproductive rights organizations argue that allowing the restrictions to take full effect "would cause profound and irreparable harm to the rights, health, and dignity of women throughout Texas," preventing thousands of women from accessing safe and legal abortion care and forcing others to "resort to unsafe or illegal methods of ending an unwanted pregnancy."

In three years, Texas has gone from having 41 abortion providers to having just ten.

Originally passed in 2013, Texas's highly restrictive abortion law, or HB2, is what's known as a Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) law. Such laws operate by erecting needless and costly obstacles around abortion providers in order to force them to close. Among other requirements, HB2 mandates that abortion clinics must meet the same standards as hospital-style surgical centers—which would require them to spend millions of dollars on renovations—and it requires providers to gain admitting privileges at local hospitals, which is a near impossibility for those in rural areas. Since HB2 was first enacted three years ago, Texas has gone from having 41 abortion providers to having just ten.

Conservative lawmakers insist that such provisions exist to protect women's health, but critics find these claims totally disingenuous. "These restrictions have nothing to do with protecting women and everything to do with with closing down clinics and pushing abortion out of reach," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, President of Whole Woman's Health, a group of abortion providers based in Texas, in a teleconference.

Abortion is one of the safest surgical procedures in existence—surgeries with far higher fatality rates, including colonoscopies, are nowhere near as heavily regulated. Numerous medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, have lambasted TRAP laws as "medically unnecessary" and politically motivated, meant only to overregulate abortion providers out of existence. That certainly seems to be the case: Gov. Rick Perry, who signed HB2 into law, has publicly said that his "goal" is to "make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past."

"These would be the most devastating abortion restrictions allowed to go into effect since Roe v. Wade," said Center for Reproductive Rights president Nancy Northup.

A woman's ability to get medical care should not depend on whether she has the resources necessary to navigate a horrific and complex obstacle course.

The crux of this case is the "undue burden" standard established by the Supreme Court in 1992: In a landmark case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court held that states have the right to regulate abortion, so long as those regulations do not impose an "undue burden" on a woman's right to choose. Here, "undue burden" is defined as a "substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion." When the appellate court upheld HB2 in June, they essentially found that Texas's byzantine restrictions do not constitute such an undue burden—a claim that many pro-choice advocates find ridiculous.

Hagstrom Miller enumerated the obstacles that Texas women must go through in order to obtain reproductive care due to HB2. "First there is the question of whether a woman can even make the trip: Can she get enough time off work? Can she afford to travel up to 300 miles? Can she get daycare for her children? Can she find a place to stay overnight?" she said.

And it's not just Texas: Since 2010, nearly 300 abortion restrictions have been passed in the US. Pro-choice advocates worry that inaction around HB2 will embolden conservative lawmakers to continue enacting similar measures throughout the country. "If this Texas law is allowed to stand... [TRAP] laws around the nation will proliferate, creating sharp disparities in access to care that are troublingly reminiscent of the time before Roe v. Wade, when access depended on a woman's wealth, where she lives, and her ability to travel to another state, or even another country," said Northup.

"A woman's ability to get medical care should not depend on whether she has the resources necessary to navigate a horrific and complex obstacle course dreamt up by anti-choice lawmakers," said Hagstrom Miller. "This the the real world, and these laws have real implications on real women's lives."