A coalition of reproductive rights groups and healthcare providers on Thursday filed a formal request for the U.S. Supreme Court to permanently block enforcement of key provisions tucked into an extreme anti-choice law in Texas, stating: "This Court has the power to stop the sham."
If the case moves forward, the Dallas Morning News declared, "it will be the most significant challenge to abortion law in over 20 years."
Texas' House Bill 2 (HB2), passed by the state legislature in 2013, includes a requirement that all abortion providers obtain local hospital admitting privileges—a mandate which has already forced the closure of over half the clinics in the state. The bill also requires every reproductive healthcare facility offering abortion services to meet the same hospital-like building standards as an ambulatory surgical center (ASC), which can amount to millions of dollars in medically unnecessary facility updates.
"When politicians force clinics to close, they exponentially multiply the number of devastating albeit unnecessary hurdles that Texas women must overcome when seeking reproductive health services."
—Amy Hagstrom Miller, Whole Woman's Health
Women's health experts contend the provisions are "sham laws that do nothing to improve women’s healthcare," and are in fact aimed at closing clinics.
Following more than a year of judicial wrangling over the provisions between a federal district court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court, a coalition led by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) is now asking (pdf) the nation's highest court to formally review the Texas law once and for all.
If HB2 is allowed to go into effect, only 10 clinics will remain open in a state that had 41 prior to the law's enactment, according to the women's health groups.
"Without the Court’s intervention, the impact on Texas women will be immediate and devastating, imposing insurmountable burdens on their access to essential reproductive health care statewide," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of CRR, which is representing clinics and providers in this latest legal challenge.
"It's been a long and arduous road to get to today’s filing, but that’s nothing compared to the obstacles that Texas women seeking reproductive health services will face if the Supreme Court of the United States denies our request and allows HB2 to fully go into effect," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman's Health, lead plaintiff in the case.
"By passing HB2, lawmakers forced us to permanently close our clinics in Beaumont and Austin," Miller added on Thursday. "While our Fort Worth and McAllen clinics are currently open, they have both had to close at various points over the last two years, leading to financial strain and overall confusion—some women even questioning if abortion is still legal in the state of Texas."
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In fact, according to the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), the law would inflict its greatest harm on the state's Latinas and immigrant women, who already struggle to access the healthcare they need.
"While this threatens all Texas women, it’s particularly harmful for Latinas, who have been among the hardest hit by recent clinic closures throughout the state," said NLIRH executive director Jessica González-Rojas on Thursday.
"Nearly 40 percent of Texas women are Latina, and Latinas are twice as likely to experience unintended pregnancies as non-Latina white women and more likely to be of reproductive age," González-Rojas explained. "Latinas already face formidable barriers to healthcare, including: poverty, lack of transportation, linguistic and cultural barriers, and restrictions on health care for immigrant women. This means that Latinas are among the most likely to rely on the very clinics these laws were designed to shut down."
Indeed, the coalition sees HB2 as part of a concerted nationwide effort to crack down on access to abortion and other women's healthcare services.
"I've said it before and I’ll say it again: these restrictions have nothing to do with protecting women and everything to do with closing down clinics and pushing abortion care out of reach," said Miller.
"When politicians force clinics to close, they exponentially multiply the number of devastating albeit unnecessary hurdles that Texas women must overcome when seeking reproductive health services," she continued. "Our ability to get safe medical care should not depend on whether we have the resources necessary to navigate a horrific and complex obstacle course dreamt up by anti-choice lawmakers. This is the real world and these laws have real implications on real women's lives."
According to CRR, the Court is likely to decide whether it will hear the case sometime before the end of 2015.
Reuters notes that "If the Supreme Court hears the appeal, it would be one of the most anticipated cases of the court's next term, which starts in October. The nine justices are likely to decide by the end of the year whether to hear the case, meaning oral arguments could come in early 2016 with a ruling by the end of June."