A federal judge ruled Monday that Texas's restrictions in a new abortion law are unconstitutional, a decision that will prevent them from taking effect Tuesday, as scheduled. On its face, the ruling is a big boost for Wendy Davis and other opponents of Texas's regulations. But just because one judge says the rules won't fly doesn't mean that another won't overturn him. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is expected to appeal.
District Judge Lee Yeakel's decision stated that the regulations violated the rights of abortion doctors and would restrict access for women to abortion clinics. Of the law, he wrote, it "does not bear a rational relationship to the legitimate right of the State in preserving and promoting fetal life or a woman's health and, in any event, places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus and is thus an undue burden to her."
The law would have closed a third of the abortion clinics in the state, as doctors in abortion clinics would have to be associated with a hospital within 30 miles. But as The Wall Street Journal explains it, "Many Texas hospitals are likely to deny admitting privileges for business reasons or because of political and moral objections to abortions." Also, Yeakel wrote that the state did not provide sufficent evidence for its position — that having an abortion doctor associated with a hospital improves patient outcomes in the case of an emergency. After all, hospitals cannot deny patients. "The court concludes that admitting privileges have no rational relationship to improved patient care."
The court order also blocks restrictions on abortion drugs. According to the Houston Chronicle, Yeakel said those restrictions
may not be enforced against any physician who determines, in appropriate medical judgment, to perform a medication-abortion using the off-label protocol for the preservation of the life or health of the mother....
Therefore, the court concludes that the medication-abortion provision of House Bill 2 is an undue burden on those women for whom surgical abortion is, in the sound medical opinion of their treating physician, a significant health risk during the period of pregnancy falling 50 to 63 days LMP.
Two components of the bill — a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation and a standards requirement for clinics — are not being challenged. The ban will go into effect Tuesday.
Texas state Sen. and, as of September, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis launched a 11-hour filibuster of the state's abortion bill in June. The filibuster, which persisted in the face of tough rules (Davis couldn't wander off topic, for instance), helped to delay the passage of the bill until a special legislative session in July. It also helped to rocket her to national political fame and set up her campaign for governor.
After the bill was passed, Planned Parenthood, along with other women's health groups, filed suit.
The judge in the case, Yeakel, was appointed to the court by then-President Bush in 2003. This isn't the first time Yeakel has weighed in on an abortion-related issue. In April 2012, he ruled that a law that would ban Planned Parenthood from receiving state funds was unconstitutional.
But that case could be instructive: Just a few months later, in August, a 5th Circuit Appeals Court reversed Yeakel's ruling, freeing Texas to impose the funding ban.
This fight is far from over, both for Texas and for pro-choice activists. The state's attorney general is expected to file an appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which could take months to go through. While the restrictions are on hold right now, there's no reason to think they're certain to stay that way.