By Reshmi Kaur Oberoi
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Judges delivered partial victories for legal activists working to block abortion restrictions in Texas and Oklahoma. But the fight goes on in Texas where state officials are battling back and medication abortions face two new, high hurdles.
Credit: scATX on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)
(WOMENSENEWS) --Pro-choice groups have been hailing a federal judge's decision on Monday to strike down a law on the brink of taking effect in Texas that said all abortion providers in the state would be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinics.
Since abortion providers are in short supply and often cross stateliness, the provision would have choked off women's access to the procedure and forced the closure of most abortion clinics in the state, say reproductive rights advocates.
"This is not a partisan issue," Ann Stone, CEO of Republicans for Choice, based in Alexandria, Va., said in a phone interview after the ruling by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. "It's really a question of those who respect women and those who don't."
In an emailed funding appeal, a related GOP group, Republicans for Majority Choice, flagged ongoing abortion restrictions in the state. "Texans are still facing some of the harshest restrictions in the nation, especially poor women and those living in rural areas," the Washington-based organization said.
Yeakel did allow two new abortion restrictions to proceed in Texas.
Set to start on Nov. 5, abortions will not be permitted after 20 weeks of conception.
Also, as of September 2014 abortion clinics in Texas will have to meet surgical center's standards, even in cases of medication-induced abortions. That means that even women taking abortion drugs will have to do so in a hospital or any place that complies with surgical-center standards. Few clinics in the state meet those standards.
"It's irrational to have a clinic basically turn into a hospital for women to undergo a non-surgical procedure. There is no medical reason, only a political agenda," said Dr. Anne Davis, consulting medical director for New York-based Physicians For Reproductive Health, in a phone interview.
Currently, women in Texas can undergo medication-induced abortion anywhere, so long as they are not at high risk for complications.
"Most people do really well at home with medication-induced abortion," said Davis, adding that many women feel more comfortable undergoing this type of abortion at home because it is "psychologically more natural than the surgical procedure and she feels like she is having a miscarriage."
In a related development in Oklahoma, the state's Supreme Court on Oct. 29 ruled unjustifiable a 2011 law that essentially illegalizes medication-induced abortion by requiring an Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regimen dating to 2000 endorsed by few doctors. The court said that requiring physicians to comply with the regulation is an unnecessary burden because 96 percent of physicians do not adhere to the FDA protocol from 2000.
Abortion rights activists cheered the ruling, which was made in response to certified questions from the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Today's decision from the Oklahoma Supreme Court strongly reaffirms that this blatantly unconstitutional law was designed to not only rob women of the safe, legal and effective option of medication to end a pregnancy at its earliest stages, but also threaten the health, lives and future fertility of women suffering from ectopic pregnancies," Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a press statement.
In neighboring Texas, the same issue is in play since Judge Yeakel let stand a new law there tying medication abortions to the 2000 FDA protocol.
That restriction was part of an anti-abortion package signed by Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry in a stormy legislative session in July that drew national attention to a grueling filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis, now campaigning for governor.
Few doctors still endorse the FDA protocol because they say the dosage levels of the abortion drug mifepristone, also known as RU-486, are too high. They also criticize the protocol because it cuts off the use of medication abortion at seven weeks of pregnancy and doctors say that medication abortions –at lower dosages– are appropriate up to nine weeks.
Doctors also like to have the ability to prescribe two other drugs, misoprostol and methotrexate, which were not available in 2000 and therefore not covered by the protocol.
In his ruling on abortion providers in Texas not needing nearby hospital admitting privileges, Yeakel said the provision would have placed undue hardship on women seeking abortions and was therefore unconstitutional.
"Today's ruling marks an important victory for Texas women and sends a clear message to lawmakers," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in The Guardian. "It is unconstitutional for politicians to pass laws that take personal, private decisions away from women and their doctors."
Texas state officials immediately sought to overthrow the federal court's decision on hospital admissions by filing an appeal and requesting an emergency stay with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
"The state's appeal can only be seen as a measure of the extreme animosity of anti-choice Texas politicians toward the health and rights of women in their state," the Center for Reproductive Rights' Northrup said in a press statement. "We hope the court will continue to keep this harmful provision blocked through the course of this appeal and carefully consider the devastating and immediate impact this restriction would have on Texas women."
The lawsuit filed in September that resulted in Yeakel's Oct. 28 judgment, titled Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, was a joint effort by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas law firm George Brothers Kincaid and Horton.
The federal court ruling on admissions in Texas was especially victorious for Hispanic women who already face barriers when accessing reproductive health care, Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, said in a press statement.
Helen Iris Torres, executive director of the advocacy group Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, based in Los Angeles, echoed that. "Across the board, the biggest barriers for Latinas have been the affordability and access to health care," Torres said in a phone interview.
She added that a shortage of Spanish-speaking doctors and those in rural areas both hinder Latinas' access to health care. Torres said the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been the most effective initiative at increasing access to health care for Latinas to date.
In an Oct. 28 whitepaper, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn emphasized the importance of Title X -- the sole federal program devoted to family planning -- to ensuring women's expanding health care access via the ACA. Flynn writes that defunding Title X, which some conservatives are pushing for, will deny women access to reproductive health care despite ACA coverage.
Flynn argues that the efficacy of Title X funding is enhanced in states where women's access to reproductive health care is already lacking because it provides monetary support to existing clinics that provide services to women who otherwise would not be able to pay.
Texas is one such state: "Texas made such drastic cuts to its state family planning program that it went from serving 212,000 patients in 2010 to 75,000 in 2012, and estimates it will only serve 61,000 in 2013," Flynn reported.
Reshmi Kaur Oberoi is an editorial intern with Women's eNews and is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @ReshmiKO.
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