AUSTIN, Texas - Women in South Texas facing a 200-mile drive for access to legal abortions learned Wednesday that a local clinic shuttered by a sweeping anti-abortion law would reopen, marking the first tangible effect of a court ruling last week that blocked key parts of the state law.
Whole Woman's Health clinic in McAllen, a city near the Mexico border, closed in March after its doctors said they couldn't obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals as the state now requires. But a federal judge ruled Friday that the law created unconstitutional barriers to abortions in South Texas, and the clinic is now set to reopen later this week, chief executive Amy Hagstrom Miller said.
Questions are now also being raised whether the ruling had other broader ramifications than first thought.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel made two key rulings in Friday's 21-page decision. He struck down a mandate that required all abortion clinics in Texas to adopt costly hospital-level operating standards, and exempted clinics in McAllen and El Paso from an already upheld requirement that doctors who perform abortions obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
A four-day trial last month narrowly focused on the El Paso and McAllen areas because clinics there serve regions where access to abortions would otherwise be particularly difficult. But language Yeakel included in a separate final judgment has left some questioning whether his order - inadvertently or not - banned the admitting-privileges law at all Texas abortion clinics.
State health officials say they're playing it safe pending guidance from a federal appeals court.
"We would have definitely cited those as violations," Department of State Health Services spokeswoman Carrie Williams said of clinics that would have been in violation of the admitting-privileges law prior to Friday's ruling. "Now we're going to need to parse that out on a case-by-case basis."
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. Only seven would have remained in business had Yeakel sided with the state.
Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also noted that Yeakel's decision "appears to invalidate the admitting-privileges law across the board" in an appeal filed with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court in New Orleans.
That court has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 12.
Until then, Hagstrom Miller, who runs the Whole Woman's Health clinic, said she is already taking weekend appointments for her McAllen facility. When the clinic closed, women seeking an abortion had to embark on a nearly 500-mile round-trip drive to San Antonio to obtain a legal abortion in Texas. Hagstrom Miller said the McAllen clinic had been performing 40 to 45 abortions each week prior to closure.
She said that Whole Woman's Health is for now interpreting Yeakel's ruling "a little more conservatively" than others who might view the decision as a possible sweeping repeal. But she said re-opening the McAllen clinic alone would have a dramatic impact.
"We are more than resilient in the face of these threats. We are stronger and more determined than ever," she said.