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Judge finds Texas abortion rules unconstitutional

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(AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca, File). FILE - In this Aug. 11, 2014 file photo, the Hilltop Women's Reproductive clinic is photographed in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca, File). FILE - In this Aug. 11, 2014 file photo, the Hilltop Women's Reproductive clinic is photographed in El Paso, Texas.
By PAUL J. WEBER
Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Tough new Texas abortion restrictions are on hold after a federal judge found Republican-led efforts to hold abortion clinics to hospital-level operating standards unconstitutional in a ruling that spares more than a dozen clinics from imminent closure.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office has filed an appeal of Friday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin, court records show.

In his ruling, Yeakel cited other rules GOP lawmakers have recently passed in his decision to throw out requirements that clinics meet hospital operating standards.

Those prior abortion restrictions include mandatory sonograms and a 24-hour waiting period after a woman first seeks out an abortion.

"These substantial obstacles have reached a tipping point," Yeakel wrote in a 21-page opinion.

Yeakel sided with clinics that sued over one of the most disputed measures of a sweeping anti-abortion bill signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2013. The ruling stops new clinic requirements that would have left seven abortion facilities in Texas come Monday, when the law was set to take effect.

However, in its court filing in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the state asked that the ruling be put on hold during the appeals process. It was not immediately clear when the appeals court would rule.

Texas currently has 19 abortion providers - already down from more than 40 just two years ago, according to groups that sued the state for the second time over the law known as HB2.

The ruling blocks a portion of the law that would have required abortion facilities in Texas to have operating rooms, air filtration systems and other costly additions that are typically only mandated in surgical settings.

"I am truly disappointed in today's ruling that undermines a concerted effort to improve health care for women in Texas by raising the standard of care in abortion clinics," Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Friday.

Yeakel, however, concluded the intent was only to "close existing licensed abortion clinics."

Clinics called the measures a backdoor effort to outlaw abortions, which has been a constitutional right since the Roe v. Wade ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.

Under the new restrictions, the only remaining abortion facilities in Texas would have been in major cities, and there would have been none in the entire western half of the nation's second-largest state. For women in El Paso, the closest abortion provider would be in New Mexico - an option the state wanted Yeakel to take into consideration, even though New Mexico's rules for abortion clinics are far less rigorous.

"The evidence has been stacking up against the state and against the politicians who so cynically passed these laws in the name of safety," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman's Health, which would have been among the clinic operators affected.

Miller said that she will now seek to re-open a clinic in the Rio Grande Valley as soon as the weekend. The clinic closed in March, leaving the nearest abortion provider more than 200 miles away in San Antonio.

Some clinics in Texas already stopped offering abortions after another part of the 2013 bill required doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. That part of the law has been upheld by the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, where the state now seeks a second reversal.

"The State disagrees with the court's ruling and will seek immediate relief from the 5th Circuit, which has already upheld HB2 once," Abbott spokeswoman Lauren Bean said.

Similar rules on admitting privileges have been blocked by federal courts in Mississippi, Kansas and Wisconsin.

Attorneys for the state denied that women would be burdened by fewer abortion facilities, saying nearly 9 in 10 women in Texas would still live within 150 miles of a provider. Critics say that still leaves nearly a million Texas women embarking on drives longer than three hours to get an abortion.

Opposition to the Texas law was so visible that Democrat Wendy Davis launched her campaign for governor behind the celebrity she achieved through a nearly 13-hour filibuster last summer that temporarily blocked the bill in the state Senate.

Her opponent in November is Abbott.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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