US Supreme Court delays enforcement of strict Texas abortion law

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 17 October 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g6304
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. 1Seattle

The US Supreme Court has temporarily blocked enforcement of parts of a Texas abortion law that had reduced the number of operating abortion clinics to seven. Texas is larger than France and the second largest state in area and, with 26 million people, the second most populous.

The order, issued 14 October,1 bars the enforcement of a requirement that all abortion clinics, even those that handle only medical abortions, must meet the facility standards required for ambulatory surgical centers, pending the outcome of a lower court appeal.2 Clinic operators have said that upgrading their facilities to meet those standards are prohibitively expensive.

The order also bars enforcement of a requirement that all doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles (50 km) of the clinics in two cities, McAllen and El Paso, pending the appeal. Enforcement would have meant a large section of the southwestern part of the state having no abortion clinics. The order does allow the requirement to be enforced in the rest of the state, where clinics are closer at hand.

Supporters of the law, known as House Bill 2,3 argue that the requirements are needed to assure patients’ safety, but opponents say that the requirements are a sham and designed to force clinics to close. The stay will allow 13 clinics that had shut their doors to reopen until the lower court appeal is decided.

Texas recently had more than 40 clinics providing abortion services. After the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit allowed the enforcement of the law’s provisions pending appeal, all seven of the remaining clinics were located in the state’s four largest metropolitan areas in the eastern part of the state. As a result, if the law’s provisions were allowed to stand, some women in the western part of the state would have to travel as much as 130 miles to reach a clinic.

The Supreme Court’s five sentence long order gave no reasons for the decision, but the ruling indicates that at least five of the nine justices had supported the delay. Which judges voted for the delay was not noted, but the order indicates that the three most conservative judges, Samuel A Alito, Jr, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, dissented.

The decision may indicate that, should the case be taken up by the Supreme Court, a majority will likely find that the restrictions impose an undue burden on the right of a woman to obtain abortion and are thus unconstitutional.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g6304


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