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updated: 3/28/2014 10:40 AM

Court hands setback to Texas abortion law critics

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  • Abortion rights supporters demonstrate outside the Capitol auditorium in Austin, Texas. A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld Texas' tough new abortion restrictions that shuttered many of the abortions clinics in the state.

    Abortion rights supporters demonstrate outside the Capitol auditorium in Austin, Texas. A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld Texas' tough new abortion restrictions that shuttered many of the abortions clinics in the state.
    Associated Press File photo, 2013

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas -- Dr. Lester Minto knows he won't be able to reopen his clinic after a federal appeals court upheld tough new abortion restrictions in Texas. But he insists he won't be silenced.

Minto has been providing abortions for three decades, but he closed his clinic near the Mexico border earlier this month because of a law that imposes some of the nation's strictest limitations on the procedure. The law, which was overwhelmingly approved last summer by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, has helped force numerous clinics to close.

"I'm not down and out," Minto said Thursday, shortly after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law. "I just can't fight in the open."

A lower court judge initially ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional and served no medical purpose, but the 5th Circuit allowed some regulations to remain in effect while it mulled the appeal. On Thursday, the appeals court ruled that the law "on its face does not impose an undue burden on the life and health of a woman."

The case, however, will likely end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Restrictions already in effect require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and place strict limits on physicians prescribing abortion-inducing pills. But other facets of the omnibus law won't take effect until this fall, meaning some of the 24 abortion clinics still open in Texas -- a state of 26 million people -- also could close.

So far, the regulations have helped force at least 19 clinics to close statewide, including Minto's in Harlingen.

But the doctor has kept his clinic's phone line active. He said a recent check found messages from five women, including a 12-year-old girl who he said had been raped traveling through Mexico and illegally crossed into the U.S.

"So she can't go up north," he said, referring to the nearest still-open clinics in Corpus Christi and San Antonio that would require passing through inland Border Patrol highway checkpoints. "She's forced to carry this pregnancy because of these laws."

The calls will continue, he assumes. And he plans to help callers as much as he can.

"I'll tell them the truth, where they can get what they need, how they get it," Minto said, adding that he tells patients to go to reputable Mexican pharmacies for abortion-inducing drugs and not flea markets.

"If I was pushing for gun rights, I'd be a hero," Minto added, referencing Texas' deep love for firearms. "But pushing for women's rights, they're afraid to deal with you."

Planned Parenthood had filed the lawsuit seeking to block part of the law. On Thursday, the organization said the appeals court ruling meant that "safe and legal abortion will continue to be virtually impossible for thousands of Texas women to access."

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican running for governor whose office defended the law in court, cheered Thursday's ruling from the panel of 5th Circuit judges.

"This unanimous decision is a vindication of the careful deliberation by the Texas Legislature to craft a law to protect the health and safety of Texas women," Abbott said.

In passing the restrictions, state lawmakers argued they were protecting women's health. But critics called the measures an attempt to effectively ban abortion in Texas through overregulation. Law opponents argued that many abortion doctors didn't have admitting privileges and that limiting when and where they could prescribe abortion-inducing pills would discourage women from choosing that option.

Other aspects of the new rules, including a requirement that all procedures take place in a surgical facility, are set to begin in September. Those elements also may be challenged in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court's four liberal justices already have indicated they are inclined to hear an appeal of the case. In November, the four dissented from the high court ruling that upheld the 5th Circuit's decision to allow Texas to enforce the law while the appeal was pending.

"It is a question, I believe, that at least four members of this court will wish to consider irrespective of the Fifth Circuit's ultimate decision," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a brief opinion that was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Five votes constitute a majority on the high court, but it takes only four to grant full review of a lower-court ruling.

In the meantime, Minto will keep answering the women calling his shuttered clinic's phone line.

"Somebody's got to help them," he said.

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