U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel sided with clinics that sued over one of the most disputed measures of a sweeping anti-abortion bill signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2013. The ruling stops new clinic requirements that would have left seven abortion facilities in Texas come Monday, when the law was set to take effect.
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.
"The overall effect of the provisions is to create an impermissible obstacle as applied to all women seeking a previability abortion," Yeakel wrote in his 21-page ruling.
The ruling blocks a portion of the that law would have required abortion facilities in Texas to meet hospital-level operating standards, which supporters say will protect women's health. But Yeakel concluded the intent was only to "close existing licensed abortion clinics."
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who is the favorite to become governor next year, vowed to seek an immediate appeal to try to preserve the new clinic rules.
Clinics called the measures a backdoor effort to outlaw abortions, which has been a constitutional right since the Roe v. Wade ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.
Under the new restrictions, the only remaining abortion facilities in Texas would have been in major cities, and there would have been none in the entire western half of the nation's second-largest state. For women in El Paso, the closest abortion provider would be in New Mexico — an option the state wanted Yeakel to take into consideration, even though New Mexico's rules for abortion clinics are far less rigorous.
"It's an undue burden for women in Texas — and thankfully today the court agreed," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman's Health, which would have been among the clinic operators affected. "The evidence has been stacking up against the state and against the politicians who so cynically passed these laws in the name of safety."
Miller said that she will now seek to re-open a clinic in the Rio Grande Valley — where there hasn't been an abortion provider for months — as soon as this weekend.
The new Texas restrictions would have required clinics to have operating rooms, air filtration systems and other standards that are typically only mandated in surgical settings.
Some clinics in Texas already stopped offering abortions after another part of the 2013 bill required doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. That part of the law has been upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court in New Orleans, where the state will now seek a second reversal.
"The State disagrees with the court's ruling and will seek immediate relief from the Fifth Circuit, which has already upheld HB2 once," Abbott spokeswoman Lauren Bean said.
Similar rules on admitting privileges have been blocked by federal courts in Mississippi, Kansas and Wisconsin.
Attorneys for the state denied that women would be burdened by fewer abortion facilities, saying nearly 9 in 10 women in Texas would still live within 150 miles of a provider. Critics say that still leaves nearly a million Texas women embarking on drives longer than three hours to get an abortion.
Opposition to the Texas law was so visible that Democrat Wendy Davis launched her campaign for governor behind the celebrity she achieved through a nearly 13-hour filibuster last summer that temporarily blocked the bill in the state Senate.
Her opponent in November is Abbott.