Abortion Options Fading Fast for Women in Texas

Women who cannot afford to fly to another state have little choice but to have a baby they did not plan. Jana Birchum/Getty

Marni Evans, 37, of Austin, Texas, wants to end her unplanned pregnancy. She and her fiancé had decided they didn’t yet have the money to start a family and opted for an abortion that was due to take place on Friday. Instead, she got a call from her local Planned Parenthood on Thursday night, cancelling her appointment.

Evans was one of many women left with few choices when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed most of Texas’s controversial abortion law to take effect immediately.

She had a dilemma. She could go to another Texas provider, undergo another ultrasound, then wait 24 hours (all requirements for women receiving abortions in Texas that she had already endured), but she had a hard time finding an in-state clinic that could see her. So she decided to use the frequent-flyer miles she was saving for a honeymoon to go to Seattle and get an abortion there.

Like the Austin clinic where Evans had planned to go, about a dozen Texas providers had to halt abortion services on Friday morning.

Two-hundred miles north of Austin, Planned Parenthood’s Southwest Fort Worth Health Center facility, a state-of-the-art clinic that opened this summer, falls foul of the requirements imposed by the abortion bill that attracted statewide protests and propelled Texas lawmaker Wendy Davis into national prominence and the impending governors’ race.

Nestled in one of the city’s medical districts, the facility has an ambulatory surgical center, a requirement clinics must meet by September 2014 to continue to perform abortions. It is a stone’s throw from a hospital, and three of its physicians have admitting privileges at a hospital in Dallas, a little over 30 miles away.

But on Friday, the clinic ceased providing abortions. Despite trying to meet all the requirements of the law, the center didn’t pass muster. The problem is the requirement that physicians have admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles away, which the clinic’s doctors missed by a hair.

“This example points to how these different policies intersect to restrict access,” said Danielle Wells, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood in Texas.

A fight over the law is making its way through the Texas courts, but on Thursday of last week the appeals court for the 5th Circuit lifted an injunction that had halted parts of the law from taking effect until legal issues were settled. On Monday, Planned Parenthood challenged the court’s decision to allow restricting abortions and has mounted an appeal with the Supreme Court, where it expects a decision in a little more than a week.

After the ruling, doctors at clinics around the state began calling patients to cancel appointments. On Friday, Amy Hagstrom Miller, who runs the five abortion clinics of the Whole Woman’s Health group, had to cancel 45 appointments scheduled for that day in three of her clinics.

Worried the injunction might be lifted, the Fort Worth Planned Parenthood facility and another in Austin had begun to scale back the number of appointments they were scheduling. When it was lifted, the two clinics canceled more than 100 abortion appointments for the following three days.

But the court ruling did not halt the demand from new patients. “Our phones are ringing off the hook with individuals trying to schedule,” said Ken Lambrecht, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

Some, like Evans, decided to fly to another state to have their pregnancies terminated.  Others don’t have the money to travel.

"I just can't afford to have another one," one woman told the Associated Press in tears on Friday, when her appointment in Harligen, near the Mexican border, was cancelled. “But the money to travel north for an abortion isn't there either.” She said she has no choice but to have the baby.

As long as it remains in effect, the new law puts hundreds of miles between women in south and west Texas and an abortion provider. "For instance, the single abortion provider in Lubbock will shut down, leaving no provider between El Paso in the west and San Antonio in the east,” said Joseph Potter, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, in his declaration to the district court. “Some women in the panhandle will have to travel more than 350 miles to seek an abortion."

In Tarrant County, where the new Fort Worth clinic was obliged to stop performing abortions, women can still travel to a clinic in Dallas that continues to provide abortions. But in a metro area, demand could become so heavy that the facility would be overwhelmed. Potter, who has studied the effects of the law as head of the University of Texas’s Policy Evaluation Center, estimated that demand in Dallas County would go up by 51 percent and “projected volume will exceed capacity by 10,098 abortions per year.”

In court, abortion providers and legal advocates have argued that the new law places too heavy a hardship on women seeking abortions, thus violating the Supreme Court precedent that prohibits regulations from placing an “undue burden” on women seeking them, defined as a "substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability."

Abortion providers prevailed in the district court and will defend that ruling on appeal before the 5th Circuit in January. But when a panel of judges struck down the injunction, they disagreed with the contention that the new law was an obstacle to women seeking a pregnancy termination. “There is a substantial likelihood that the state will prevail in its argument that Planned Parenthood failed to establish an undue burden on women seeking abortions,” the judges wrote.

“The 5th Circuit just got it all wrong,” said Janet Crepps, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “The undue burden here is that as a direct result of this requirement, women won’t be able to get abortions – as many as approximately 20,000 annually.”

“If this isn’t an undue burden,” she said, “ there is really no protection for women against restrictions.”