The veritable tidal wave of abortion restrictions pushed by fundamentalist Christians and other socially conservative groups at the state level in recent years has run into a formidable sea wall in the nation's federal courtrooms. Judges are standing up for women's reproductive rights and setting aside backdoor restrictions aimed at shutting down abortion clinics.
Perhaps the most important example of this took place late last month when a federal judge in Texas blocked the state from imposing its controversial law that would have closed more than half the state's abortion clinics. Judge Lee Yeakel ruled the restrictions — made famous by the unsuccessful filibuster against them by state Sen. Wendy Davis last year — imposed an "unconstitutional undue burden on women throughout Texas," particularly on those who are poor and living in rural areas.
The strategy of such regulations was, as the judge noted, brutally effective — burden clinics with enough costly (and unnecessary) regulations to make them impractical to operate. Such a strategy attempts to give its proponents a cover story that they are only looking out for the health and safety of female clients when they seek nothing of the kind.
Forcing delays in services, pushing women toward self-induced abortions or requiring women to travel far greater distances to receive appropriate health care "almost certainly cancel out any potential health benefit associated with the requirement," he noted. That Judge Yeakel was appointed to the bench by the famously pro-life President George W. Bush underscores the reasonableness and nonpartisan nature of the verdict.
But the ruling in the Texas case, which will almost certainly be appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was not the only victory for women's access to medical care. Two days later in Louisiana, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing that state's abortion law — one requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic — from going into effect this week.
The decision by U.S. District Judge John deGravelles doesn't overturn the law, but it does prevent it from being enforced and any penalties imposed until a hearing is held. That gives opponents an opportunity to make arguments similar to those that won over Judge Yeakel in the Texas case — that the admitting-privilege law is simply an added layer of red tape that is medically unnecessary and designed mostly to close abortion clinics.
And that follows a ruling by a federal judge in Alabama one month ago striking down an admitting privileges law similar to Louisiana's on the grounds it was unconstitutional. In July, a federal appeals court panel blocked Mississippi's two-year-old admitting privileges law that would have closed the state's only abortion clinic.
Of course, the final word on the constitutionality of any law resides with the Supreme Court, but there's not necessarily any reason to believe that abortion opponents will be successful there either. While the protections of Roe v. Wade have been modified over the last two decades (particularly by the decision to uphold a federal ban on so-called partial birth abortions in 2007), a woman's basic right to choose remains the law of the land.
At the very least, the rulings at the district and circuit court levels demonstrate that most judges view Roe v. Wade as still setting the parameters regarding privacy and abortion rights. Various efforts by states to interfere with those rights whether through admitting privileges or surgical center standards, or mandatory ultrasound checks of pregnant women, are clearly a violation of the Constitution and should be rejected.
Abortion opponents have a right to their beliefs but not to impose those beliefs on others. Those who would like to see fewer pregnancies terminated ought to devote themselves to reducing the incidence of unwanted pregnancy. In Texas, for instance, the core of the problem is the high number of poor women without health insurance (the highest rate of any state, according to the Guttmacher Institute) and a lack of access to family planning and contraceptive services. That isn't solved by closing abortion clinics but by investing more in public health programs including sex education beyond the state's abstinence only curriculum.
Abortion should remain a safe and legal way to end a pregnancy. That's what the law provides and that's what a series of federal judges have upheld this summer. One can only trust that the nation's highest court will show a similar respect for the constitution and for legal precedent.
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