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Groups sue to halt key parts of Texas abortion law

By The Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- More than a dozen women's health care providers in Texas sued the state Friday, attempting to block as unconstitutional key provisions of a strict new abortion law that drew massive protests and threw the Legislature into chaos before it was approved this summer.

The 32-page complaint was filed in Austin by the providers and Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union. The new law requires doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, only allows abortions in surgical centers and bans the procedure completely after 20 weeks, while also limiting medical abortions.

It was approved by the Legislature's Republican majority despite a nearly 13-hour filibuster that made Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth a national political star and amid weeks of unprecedented protests where thousands of activists on both sides of the issue thronged the state Capitol.

Opponents say the restrictions would effectively ban abortion in much of the nation's second-most-populous state. Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said Friday: "The real purpose of this law is to make it impossible for women in Texas to get an abortion."

The suit doesn't address the 20-week ban because the overwhelming majority of abortions occur earlier than that threshold. On a conference call with reporters, the groups and attorneys said they wouldn't discuss future legal strategy but also didn't rule out a possible future legal challenge to the 20-week ban.

Friday's suit also isn't challenging the surgical center rules - which providers say will force clinics to make costly upgrades or close - because they won't take effect until next year.

Instead, it seeks a temporary injunction to block requirements that doctors have hospital admitting privileges, as well as limits on medical abortions. The groups said there are currently 36 licensed facilities in Texas that perform abortions and 13 of those would be forced to stop doing so based just on the rules that take effect next month.

Planned Parenthood says women in Fort Worth, Waco, Harlingen, Killeen, Lubbock and McAllen will be left with nowhere to legally undergo the procedure. Other clinics around the state will remain open but will be unable to operate at the staffing levels they do now because not all of their physicians have hospital admitting privileges.

Jim George, an attorney handling the suit, said there are many reasons why hospitals would choose to deny admitting privileges to doctors, including religious or political objections to abortion, in some cases.

"This law is unconstitutional and it interferes with a women's ability to make her own private medical decision and it will absolutely jeopardize women's health and safety," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"I grew up in Texas and learned pretty early on that women only got what they fought for," said Richards, the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.

State Attorney General Greg Abbott, a prominent Republican who's running for governor, is named in the suit. His office offered no comment Friday.

The state senator who sponsored the bill that became the new abortion law, Republican Glenn Hegar of the Houston suburb of Katy, said it "plays a critically important role in improving safety standards for women and protecting the life of the unborn child."

"This lawsuit is an effort to delay implementation of certain provisions in the bill that would improve women's health care in the state of Texas," Hegar said in a written statement. "I have absolute confidence that the Attorney General will be able to successfully defend against this frivolous lawsuit."

Those behind the suit argue the law isn't about making women safer, just stopping abortion. Thy said that if they secure a temporary injunction they expect Abbott to appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court.

Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the ACLU have teamed up before to challenge similar restrictions in other states.

The groups say rules on physicians with hospital admitting privileges were halted by legal challenges in Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, legal complaints against medical abortion rules similar to the ones passed in Texas were struck down by state courts in Oklahoma and North Dakota, but upheld by a federal court in Ohio.
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