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Abortion Rights Activists Plan Challenge To Texas Measure

Abortion rights opponents, dressed in blue, and supporters, wearing orange, rally in the state Capitol rotunda Friday before the vote on a set of sweeping abortion restrictions.
Tamir Kalifa
Abortion rights opponents, dressed in blue, and supporters, wearing orange, rally in the state Capitol rotunda Friday before the vote on a set of sweeping abortion restrictions.

In a major victory for the anti-abortion movement, the Texas state Senate passed a sweeping bill early Saturday that has become a flashpoint in the national abortion debate. Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign it in short order.

But the fight is not over. Abortion rights supporters say that the new law attempts to overturn Roe vs. Wade in Texas, and that's why they plan to take their fight to the courts.

"What this does is completely reshape the abortion landscape in the state," says Elizabeth Nash, who follows state issues at the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research group. "With this legislation, Texas will become one of the most restrictive states in the country. And Texas really matters."

First, Texas is the second most populous state in the nation, with four major cities and 5.5 million women of reproductive age. It also has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

And symbolically, Texas was home to Jane Roe, whose fight for a legal abortion went all the way to the Supreme Court — which decided in 1973 that abortion is a woman's fundamental right under the Constitution.

Under the new law, abortion doctors must get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals; abortion clinics must upgrade to surgical centers; abortion-inducing pills can only be taken when a physician is present; and abortions would be banned 20 weeks after fertilization.

All of these measures have been passed, piecemeal, in other states, where the Center for Reproductive Rights has fought them all, says Julie Rikelman, the group's litigation director.

"This law can absolutely be stopped. It is a cocktail of restrictions that have been blocked by other courts around the country," Rikelman says. "It's clearly unconstitutional and I do believe that courts will find it to be unconstitutional if it's challenged."

Rikelman cites precedents in Kansas, where a court placed a temporary injunction on a measure forcing abortion clinics to upgrade to surgical clinics. Courts have also blocked the requirement that abortion providers gain hospital admitting privileges in Mississippi, Alabama and Wisconsin. And courts have blocked the 20-week abortion ban in Arizona, Idaho and Georgia.

But none of those cases was in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Texas, points out Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance of Life, which has backed the anti-abortion bill from the beginning.

"Their optimism may be poorly founded in the 5th Circuit," Pojman says. "In Texas, we have had a very good track record of our abortion regulations and limits being reviewed and upheld by the 5th Circuit. I point out to you most recently our statute passed two years ago."

In 2011, the Center for Reproductive Rights appealed a Texas law that requires a doctor to ask a woman to see a sonogram and hear the heartbeat of the fetus before her abortion can be performed. Three appellate judges in the 5th Circuit upheld it.

Republicans who dominate the legislature and passed the new abortion rules insist they are only trying to improve standards at abortion facilities and safeguard women's health. Democrats insist with equal fervor that their colleagues are trying to make it harder to obtain an abortion in Texas.

Spectators are more plainspoken about what they hope the new law accomplishes. Joan Hillman is a retired nurse from Houston who came to the capitol on Friday to show her support of the anti-abortion bill.

"Well, hopefully if it doesn't stop the abortions at least it will slow the abortions down." Hillman says. "I think we're killing our next generation."

Weary state troopers, for one, are glad that the Texas abortion battle now moves out of the state Capitol. Stern officers were posted everywhere in the past two weeks to monitor the emotional protesters who had converged on the pink-granite building to make their voices heard.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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