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US judge blocks portion of Texas abortion law

Critics cheer, claim clinics could have shut

Governor Rick Perry said the decision will not impede the drive to implement the law.

AP/File

Governor Rick Perry said the decision will not impede the drive to implement the law.

 NEW YORK — A federal judge in Texas on Monday blocked an important part of the state’s restrictive new abortion law, which would have required doctors performing the procedure to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

The decision, one day before the provision was to take effect, prevented a major disruption of the abortion clinics in Texas. It was a victory for abortion rights groups and clinics that said the measure served no medical purpose and could force up to one-third of the state’s 36 abortion clinics to close.

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But the court did not strike down a second measure, requiring doctors to use a particular drug protocol in nonsurgical, medication-induced abortions that doctors called outdated and too restrictive.

In a decision that is widely expected to be appealed by the state, Judge Lee Yeakel of US District Court in Austin declared that “the act’s admitting-privileges provision is without a rational basis and places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus.”

On the medication provision, Yeakel found that the state could regulate how a doctor prescribes an abortion-inducing pill, but he said the law did not allow for a doctor to adjust treatment to best protect the health or life of the woman.

He therefore blocked a provision requiring doctors to follow Food and Drug Administration protocol for the pills in all instances. Yeakel was appointed by President George W. Bush.

In bringing the suit against the two parts of the antiabortion law adopted in July, abortion rights groups said these provisions would have “dramatic and draconian” effects on women’s access to the procedure.

‘We will continue fighting’

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Lawyers for the state argued that the predictions were exaggerated and that the measures served the state’s interest in “protecting fetal life.”

Governor Rick Perry, who has said he hopes to make abortion “a thing of the past,” signed the legislation in July. It had been temporarily derailed when Wendy Davis, a Democratic state senator, mounted an eleventh-hour filibuster in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Davis is now running for governor of Texas, with abortion rights one of her planks.

Attorney General Greg Abbott is expected to file an emergency appeal of Yeakel’s order to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, the Associated Press reported.

‘‘Today’s decision will not stop our ongoing efforts to protect life and ensure the women of our state aren’t exposed to any more of the abortion-mill horror stories that have made headlines recently,’’ Perry said in a statement. ‘‘We will continue fighting to implement the laws passed by the duly-elected officials of our state, laws that reflect the will and values of Texans.’’

The lawsuit did not challenge two other central provisions of the Texas law — a requirement that all abortion clinics meet the costly standards of ambulatory surgery centers, which does not take effect until September, and a ban on nearly all abortions at 20 weeks after conception, which will take effect Tuesday.

In three days of hearings before Yeakel last week, lawyers for the state argued that it was impossible to know in advance how many clinics would be shut by the admitting-privilege rule and that, in any case, the rule would not pose an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions, which would remain available in the state.

Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell also asserted that the law served the state’s interest in “protecting fetal life.”

The plaintiffs said the disputed provisions did not serve any medical interest and were intended to prevent women from exercising their constitutional right to an abortion.

The legal challenge was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, and several other Texas clinic owners.

In the hearings, clinic owners described why the visiting doctors used by many clinics could not meet the admitting-privilege requirement and the hardships patients would face, especially in sparsely populated West Texas, if clinics closed.

Similar admitting-privilege requirements have been blocked by courts in Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Doctors described the professional consensus that medication abortions were safe and effective through nine weeks of pregnancy, and with a lower dosage than that used in the earliest trials.

They said the Texas law’s mandate to use the protocol approved by the FDA in 2000, which approved use of higher doses through only seven weeks of pregnancy, would expose women to unnecessary risk.

Courts in North Dakota and Oklahoma have struck down laws imposing the earlier drug protocol for medication abortions, but one remains in effect in Ohio.

Texas was the 12th state to adopt a 20-week ban, which legal specialists say is in conflict with Supreme Court decisions granting a right to abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually at around 24 weeks.

Rights groups said they were still studying when and how to challenge the ban.

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