Over the past month, abortion rights supporters have won several key victories in federal court. Three judges blocked anti-choice measures in Alabama, Texas, and Louisiana that would have shut down abortion clinics. In their opinions, the federal judges all acknowledged that the harsh laws will threaten women’s access to clinics if they’re allowed to take effect.
Although that’s certainly good news for reproductive rights advocates, the wins aren’t likely to be permanent. The recent decisions in the three southern states aren’t the final word on the matter.
“While this is a victory for women’s health, the sad truth remains that there are still individuals in this country that are set on denying women access to safe, legal abortion,” Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement provided to ThinkProgress after the most recent court rulings.
Janet Crepps, who litigates against abortion restrictions for the Center for Reproductive Rights, told ThinkProgress that there’s “a real risk” looming in subsequent court decisions. Officials in Alabama will appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which includes several very conservative judges who could ultimately rule in favor of the law in question. Texas leaders have already appealed to the extremely conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which has a track record of allowing stringent abortion restrictions to take effect. And Louisiana is still awaiting a ruling on whether its law will be permanently enjoined rather than temporarily blocked.
Plus, even if one state ends up with a favorable decision that preserves women’s abortion access, conflicting rulings in different appeals courts could lead to a circuit split that puts the issue of clinic restrictions in front of the Supreme Court. Considering the current make up of the bench, and the fact that Justice Anthony Kennedy — who’s often considered to be the “swing vote” in abortion-related cases — hasn’t cast a pro-choice vote in more than two decades, the nation’s highest court can’t necessarily be counted on to protect reproductive rights.
This fits into a larger pattern that’s been unfolding over the past year. Even as abortion rights supporters win small scale legal victories, the anti-choice agenda continues to rapidly advance. The so-called “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers,” or TRAP, has been particularly successful in the South, where clinics are being shuttered even in spite of the legal challenges seeking to preserve women’s access to abortion providers.
“One thing that’s important for people to understand is that in spite of these recent legal victories, these laws have already caused clinics to close and we’re not sure if they’ll ever be able to come back,” Crepps said. “Texas is the best example of this — high quality clinics that used to provide women’s health services have closed in areas that now don’t have any abortion clinics at all.”
Texas’s TRAP law includes several different provisions that attack abortion access from different angles. The first part of the law, which was implemented last fall, requires providers to enter into unnecessary business relationships with local hospitals. On top of that, the second part blocked from taking effect this week would require clinics to make costly renovations to their buildings that most can’t afford. Even without the second provision in place, dozens of clinics have already been forced to close. The most rural and impoverished areas of the state don’t have any nearby women’s health clinics left.
“The legal victories are important. But they can’t take away the problems caused by the passage of these laws,” Crepps noted.
If the rest of Texas’ law is eventually allowed to take effect, there will potentially be just eight clinics in the entire Lone Star State — leaving just one abortion provider for every one million potentially pregnant residents. If Alabama’s law is reinstated, the state could be left with just two clinics. And under Louisiana’s law, it’s possible that every single abortion provider in the state will be forced out of business.
“Planned Parenthood will stop at nothing to fight these dangerous restrictions on behalf of the women who rely on us,” Richards’ statement concluded.