By Tierney Sneed
Planned Parenthood clinics in the five states neighboring Texas saw a nearly 800% increase in abortion patients from the Lone Star State after a six-week ban went into effect in September, the organization said Thursday.
Colorado and Oklahoma clinics saw some of the biggest surges in Texas abortion seekers, the organization said. Between September 1 and December 31, 2021, abortion patients with Texas zip codes made up more than half the total number of patients at Oklahoma Planned Parenthood clinics, in what was a 2500% increase in Texas traffic to those facilities. Texas patients amounted to less than 10% in Oklahoma clinics the same time the year before.
“Oklahoma alone cannot begin to absorb the number of patients fleeing Texas for abortion care,” Planned Parenthood-Great Plains medical director Iman Alsaden told reporters Thursday, while noting that Oklahoma lawmakers are considering a Texas-like ban themselves.
“Banning abortion doesn’t stop people from needing abortion,” Alsaden said.
The new data — which also included clinics in, New Mexico, Kansas and Missouri — was released after the Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments about Texas law, known as SB8. The justices are not considering at this time whether to block the law, but rather are weighing in — at the request of a federal appeals court — on a procedural question that has arisen in the federal lawsuit the clinics brought against the six-week ban.
With the law, Texas employed a novel enforcement mechanism that has allowed the ban to stay in force — even in the face of Supreme Court precedent protecting abortion rights through viability, a point around 23 weeks into the pregnancy.
Rather than impose criminal or administrative penalties on clinics that violate the ban, the legislature gave private citizens anywhere in the country the right to sue, in state court, providers or anyone else who facilitates an abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected.
The threat of that litigation has been enough to stop Texas clinics from offering the procedure after that point, which is around six weeks into the pregnancy and before many people realize their pregnant.
With abortion now inaccessible for many Texans in their state, they’ve traveled out of state to obtain the procedure instead. This surge has in turn impacted the residents of neighboring states by straining resources at clinics.
Patients are having to wait a month to book abortion appointments at the Hope Medical Group for Women facility in Shreveport, Louisiana, according to the clinic’s administrator, Kathaleen Pittman.
“We are seeing women who are coming to us from Texas — even from Louisiana — who are later in the pregnancy,” she told reporters Thursday, adding that her clinic used to specialize in terminating early pregnancies. “We are seeing very few early pregnancies these days for termination because it’s taking so long for everyone to get in.”
Texans made up 18% of her clinics patients before the six-week ban and by October, made up 55%; now they’re 64% of the clinic’s patients.
Planned Parenthood clinics in Colorado saw a more than 1000% increase, compared to previous years, in abortion patients with Texas zip codes between Sept. 1, 2021, and the end of the year, according to the new data.
For New Mexico clinics, the increase was more than 100%, Planned Parenthood said Thursday.
Limited options for clinics in their federal court challenge
Thursday, Texas Supreme Court justices were scrutinizing the text of the law and what it says about state licensing officials’ obligation to enforce the ban against clinics.
In a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court said in December that clinics could not obtain federal court orders against state court officials to prevent them from presiding over litigation brought under the ban. The US Supreme Court let the lawsuit proceed against a handful of state licensing officials, but the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals has now asked the Texas Supreme Court to decide if those officials play enough of a role enforcing the law that would make it appropriate for federal courts to issue an order blocking them from carrying out aspects of the ban.
Abortion rights advocates opposed the move to send the proceedings to the Texas Supreme Court, seeing it as a delay tactic to run down the clock while the US Supreme Court considers a separate case where the court is poised to dismantle its precedent protecting pre-viability abortion rights.
Citing the US Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, in a section of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion joined by seven other justices, the clinics argue that they face the threat of losing their licenses for violating the law. They intend to seek a federal court order blocking state officials from implementing the ban.
Texas, in defending the ban, noted that Gorsuch’s language was hedged and Texas is arguing that the Texas Supreme Court should have the final word on where such an order can be sought in federal court.
In a statement after Thursday’s hearing, Texas Right to Life spokesperson Kim Schwartz said the group believed that the clinics’ case was “invalid” and that it was “confident that the Texas Heartbeat Act will once again prevail against the abortion industry’s attack.”
At the oral arguments Thursday, some Texas justices questioned whether they should second guess the US Supreme Court’s view, with Justice Debra Lehrmann telling Texas’ attorney that the US Supreme Court’s read of the law is “certainly not something we’re just going to thumb our nose at.”
Several other justices however suggested they were inclined to rule in Texas’ favor. Justice Brett Busby said that if that court said the licensing officials didn’t play a role in a ban, it would give the clinics the same relief they were pursuing in federal court.
“There’s no there’s no dispute between the parties as to the proper remedy in this case, it’s just how you get there,” Busby suggested, prompting pushback from the clinics’ lawyer Marc Hearron.
On the Thursday afternoon press call, Hearron, who is a senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said that if the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the clinics, it would effectively end their challenge to the law in federal court.
But even if the clinics were to succeed and secure federal court orders against the state officials, that would only stop those officials from disciplining clinics for violating the ban.
“That will not stop individuals from filing lawsuits under SB8,” he said. “You will not stop the bounty hunting scheme or fully restore abortion access across the state.”
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