NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal appeals court heard arguments Monday on whether the state of Texas can enforce a law that led to the closing of several abortion clinics, a case that ultimately appears bound for the U.S. Supreme Court.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans didn't indicate how soon it would rule on whether a district judge erred in declaring parts of the 2013 law unconstitutional.
Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights sued to block two of the law's provisions. One requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges within 30 miles of where the abortion is performed. The other restricts how doctors administer abortion-inducing drugs.
The groups say U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel correctly ruled in October that the provisions place an unconstitutional burden on women's access to abortion. But the state argues that the new requirements promote the health and safety of abortion patients and advance the state's "interest in protecting fetal life."
An Oct. 31 ruling by the 5th Circuit allowed Texas to enforce the law while it appealed the decision. Judges Jennifer Walker Elrod and Catharina Haynes, two of the three judges on the panel that stayed Yeakel's ruling, also heard Monday's arguments.
More than a dozen Texas abortion clinics closed after the law took effect, but some have since reopened, according to the groups opposed to the law.
Janet Crepps, a New York-based lawyer for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the Rio Grande Valley had two abortion providers before the law took effect and currently has none.
"Women are now forced to travel 150 (miles) or a 300-mile-round trip," she said.
5th Circuit Judge Edith Jones, however, questioned whether a drive of that length truly places an undue burden on women seeking an abortion.
"Do you know how long that takes in Texas at 75 miles an hour?" she asked. "This is a peculiarly flat and not congested highway."
Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell said the groups had no way of knowing how clinics would be affected by the law before it took effect. Jones and Haynes also cast doubt on the groups' forecast that the privileges requirement would force at least one-third of the state's abortion clinics to close, denying more than 20,000 women access to an abortion annually.