McALLEN, Texas — Shortly before a candlelight vigil on the sidewalk outside, employees of the last abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas shut the doors Thursday evening, making legal abortion unavailable in the poorest part of the state in the wake of tough new restrictions passed last year by the Texas Legislature.
The closings Thursday of two clinics operated by Whole Woman’s Health — the one here in McAllen and another in the East Texas city of Beaumont — are part of a wave of clinic closings brought on by the new law.
There were 44 facilities that performed abortions in Texas in 2011, abortion providers said. After the two closings Thursday, there are now 24, they said. When the law is fully implemented in September, that number is expected to drop to six.
“It’s heartbreaking for us,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which has challenged provisions of the law in court. “It’s been a very difficult decision. I tried everything I can. I just can’t keep the doors open.”
Antiabortion groups said some of the reasons for the clinic closings were “deplorable conditions,” violations of state safety regulations, and high staff turnover, accusations the operators denied. Still, abortion opponents expressed satisfaction that the two clinics, which together treated nearly 3,000 patients annually, were shutting their doors.
“We are pleased that women will never again receive substandard care from either of these abortion facilities,” said Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life.
Abortion was a heated political issue last year in Texas, when Republican lawmakers, backed by Governor Rick Perry, passed some of the toughest restrictions in the country, despite a marathon filibuster that turned state Senator Wendy Davis into a national political figure. The politics have since been toned down. Davis did not attend the clinic closings Thursday and has not emphasized the issue in her campaign for governor.
But the real-world impact has played out in the months since the law passed. In McAllen, the shuttering of the city’s only abortion clinic has increased the costs, the time, and the travel distance for women seeking an abortion. Women have been making a roughly 4-hour, 240-mile trip to San Antonio or a 5-hour, 310-mile trip to Austin to get an abortion. There had been two clinics that performed abortions in the Rio Grande Valley, but by the end of the day Thursday there were none. The other one in nearby Harlingen closed days ago.
Activity at the McAllen clinic had slowed recently. It had stopped performing abortions last year after parts of the law went into effect. On Tuesday, the aftercare room, where women who had received an abortion were taken to recuperate, was cluttered with boxes of files as workers prepared for Thursday.
The leaders of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates clinics in Texas and two other states, said they had closed the McAllen and Beaumont clinics in large part because of one restriction in the law: the requirement that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. Miller said that nearly all their doctors had been unable to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and that some hospitals had declined to even provide doctors with applications for admitting privileges.
Another part of the law, which takes effect in September, requires clinics to meet surgical-center standards, meaning all abortions, including nonsurgical procedures, must take place in hospital-style operating rooms. It is that requirement that abortion providers say will probably reduce the number of clinics in the state to six and that Miller said had played a role in the decision to close the McAllen and Beaumont clinics.