AUSTIN, Texas » Abortion providers cheered a move by the U.S. Supreme Court to temporarily block part of a Texas law that would have closed more than half the state’s 19 remaining abortion clinics. Now they are studying whether it could also allow them to reopen some previously shuttered facilities and whether that would even be feasible.
“We may have gotten more than we even asked for,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which sued to over overturn the law. But she cautioned that reopening clinics would be expensive and difficult, not just “a turn of the key and turn on the lights.”
Meanwhile, anti-abortion advocates insisted Monday’s ruling, while at least a short-term victory for abortion providers, isn’t as sweeping as those groups hope.
Both sides agree the two-paragraph order blocks a requirement that would mandate abortion facilities be constructed like surgical centers. It was the final major component of the 2013 law set to take effect.
Abortion providers also said they were analyzing whether the order goes further and temporarily wipes out an additional requirement that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals.
But Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, said the doctor requirements have been in place since a 2014 legal decision and stay in place.
“That was decided,” Pojman said. “What’s in effect stays in effect. This order only applies to the new rules.”
The justices voted 5-4 to grant the emergency appeal from abortion providers. The order will remain in effect at least until the high court decides whether to hear the clinics’ appeal of the lower court ruling, which won’t be before the fall.
The court’s decision to block the regulations is a strong indication that the justices will hear the full appeal, which could be the biggest abortion case at the Supreme Court in nearly 25 years.
The Republican-backed law was enacted in 2013 and led to a wave a clinic closures statewide. Texas had 41 abortion clinics in 2012; less than half of those remain and that number was set to fall to nine starting Wednesday, had the nation’s high court not intervened.
Supporters of the regulations, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, say they are common-sense measures intended to protect women.
“I’m confident the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold this law,” Abbott said in a statement.
But abortion rights groups say the regulations have only one aim: to make it harder, if not impossible, for women to get abortions in Texas.
Without the Monday ruling, the state would have had no clinic west of San Antonio. Only one would have been able to operate on a limited basis in McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley.
Stephanie Toti, a lawyer for the Center for Reproductive Rights who is representing the clinics, said some clinics that had previously closed might be able to reopen.
“We are hopeful,” Toti said. “But some of those clinics have been closed for so long.”
Miller’s group closed facilities in Austin and Beaumont in 2014 because of the construction requirements that demanded clinics meet hospital-level operating standards, a checklist that includes rules on minimum room sizes, staffing levels and air ventilation systems. The rules are among the toughest in the nation.
Owners of traditional abortion clinics, which resemble doctor’s offices more than hospitals, have said they would be forced to close because they can’t afford such upgrades.
Other facilities closed because of the doctor requirements.
Miller said to reopen the Austin and Beaumont facilities would require applying for a new state license, hiring staff and purchasing equipment. All that takes fundraising, which would have to be done while knowing that those clinics could again if the court ultimately rejected the case just few months later, she said.
“Reopening a clinic without knowing how long is very unpredictable,” Miller said. “But the need is still there.”
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.