HB 2 Back in Court: Judges Get Critical

Abortion providers “encouraged” by judges’ skepticism

The fight over Texas' abortion law, House Bill 2, isn't over. The legal challenge to HB2's final provision returned to court today.
The fight over Texas' abortion law, House Bill 2, isn't over. The legal challenge to HB2's final provision returned to court today. (by Photo by John Anderson)

In New Orleans this morning, justices on the notoriously conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a critical line of questioning during a hearing to determine the fate of the final provision of Texas’ draconian abortion law, House Bill 2.

The challenge focuses on a rule that forces clinics to make costly building updates that comply with ambulatory surgical center (ASCs) standards and also seeks to strike down hospital admitting privilege requirements for clinics in McAllen and El Paso, underserved, minority-populated areas. If the final provision of the law goes into effect, it is expected to leave only seven abortion providers for the state’s 5 million reproductive-age women.

While news of which judges would hear the case – all George W. Bush appointees, including two who previously upheld parts of HB 2 – didn’t create comfort among abortion providers, the judge’s responses to Wednesday’s oral arguments proved surprisingly refreshing, lending abortion providers and pro-choice advocates some encouragement.

From the outset of the hearing that lasted twice as long as the allotted time, Judge Catharina Haynes, directing her questions to State Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, expressed trouble discerning how the ASC physical plant requirements improve women’s safety. The construction changes – which include building janitor closets and expanding doorways– are estimated to cost millions for abortion providers, many of which are modest, independent clinics unable to afford the hefty pricetag. (For instance, a 7,000 square foot building would cost in the ballpark of $5 million.) Plaintiffs argue these requirements are wholly unnecessary and amount to a “multi-million dollar tax” on abortion providers. Mitchell said the rules improve the sterility of the clinic. “Then why can’t you have a sterile operating environment in a 3,000 square foot [clinic]?” asked Haynes.

Pointing to the hundreds of miles women in West Texas will be forced to trek if the ASC rule goes into effect, Haynes predicted a possible “bleeding event” scenario that would place women in danger and run counter to the state’s ostensible intention of increasing women’s safety. “If a woman starts profusely bleeding [on the road to a provider], isn’t that a problem? Isn’t that the antithesis of what the state is trying to promulgate?” Mitchell, as he has before, said that a woman in El Paso can obtain closer services in New Mexico; however, the neighboring state does not hold the same requirements as Texas’ HB 2, raising questions over the state’s true purpose in defending the law.

Later, Stephanie Toti of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said there was “no good reason” to force women to travel to another state for abortion care. “Texas is essentially forcing its own abortion providers out of practice because it says these requirements are necessary to advance patient health and safety but then it's shuttling those patients across the border [to New Mexico] where those requirements aren’t in force,” said Toti, underscoring the state’s hypocrisy. When pressed about the seeming contradiction by Haynes (“Aren’t you undercutting your argument?” she asked) Mitchell, replied, “I don’t see that it’s hypocritical at all [...] we can’t stop our patients from traveling out of state.” Yet, Mitchell did acknowledge the care women would receive in New Mexico would be “less than optimal.”

Nevertheless, Haynes also cast some skepticism on plaintiffs’ claims regarding ASC changes and the number of women affected, and questioned whether the district court’s order – which struck down HB2 – was “overly broad.”

The first three parts of the four-part HB 2 have already gone into effect: A rule that forces abortion physicians to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles; a rule that mandates abortion patients follow outdated FDA protocol when ingesting abortion medication; and an abortion ban after 20 weeks of pregnancy. U.S. Judge Lee Yeakel deemed the ASC rule unconstitutional in August and the state quickly appealed. The 5th Circuit then upheld the law, sending the rule into effect in October. Plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which temporarily halted the law on Oct. 14.

As a result of HB 2, the number of abortion clinics in Texas have been cut in more than half, from 41 to 17 with two under construction and not yet operating. If the ASC rule is enacted, seven clinics will remain, leaving abortion care up to 500 miles away for women who live west or south of San Antonio.

On a press call following the hearing, Amy Hagstrom-Miller of lead plaintiff Whole Woman’s Health – a network of reproductive health providers, including a now closed Austin center – said she was “very encouraged” and “impressed” by Haynes and Elrod’s critical line of questioning – a notably atypical assessment of 5th Circuit reproductive health-related proceedings. Hagstrom-Miller said the justices “took seriously” the undue burden placed on women, especially in West and South Texas, and she was pleased by the ample time spent bringing to light the “illogic” of the New Mexico argument. In particular, she appreciated when Haynes cast doubt on the ASC rule’s ability to benefit the health of Texas women. In this instance, the 5th Circuit has at least “paid attention to the evidence” plaintiffs put forward, said Miller.

However, as past rulings at the 5th Circuit have proven, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the outcome on matters of abortion rights and reproductive health. Plaintiffs say the appellate court will rule within the next couple of weeks. In the event the panel rules to uphold the law, Miller and plaintiffs won’t hesitate to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the lower court’s injunction, and the state defendants are expected to do the same. The case, expects Miller, will ultimately head to the high court.

“We are very committed to challenge this all the way up to the Supreme Court if need be,” she said.

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House Bill 2, HB 2, 5th Circuit Court of Appeals

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