State: Abortion Docs Still Need Admitting Privileges

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling allowing some Texas abortion clinics to remain open, the Texas Department of State Health Services said on Thursday that doctors performing abortions must still obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Texas doctors performing abortions must still obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said on Thursday.

The department's statement comes days after the Supreme Court put on hold an appellate court's ruling that would have closed at least 10 abortion facilities. Abortion restrictions passed by the Texas Legislature in 2013 — and set to go into effect Wednesday — would have required Texas' abortion facilities to meet hospital-like standards, including minimum sizes for rooms and doorways, pipelines for anesthesia and other modifications.

Attorneys for the abortion providers had said the high court's order also blocked the state from enforcing a separate provision of the law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic. The Supreme Court restored a lower court's ruling striking down both provisions of the law statewide, the attorneys said.

But on Thursday, Williams said the Supreme Court's intervention only suspended the provision requiring hospital-like standards. Only some doctors at two clinics — Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen and Reproductive Services in El Paso — are exempt from the admitting privileges requirement, Williams said. (The El Paso clinic has been closed for months.)

In light of the health department's statement, Stephanie Toti with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of Texas abortion providers, said it is "studying the Supreme Court’s order to determine its impact.”

“We are hopeful that it may allow some of the clinics that had been previously closed due to the state's admitting privileges requirements to reopen," Toti said in a statement.

The admitting privileges provision closed about half of the 41 abortion facilities that were operating in the state before the restrictions went into effect. The abortion providers' attorneys have said there are 19 abortion facilities remaining in the state. The health department says 23 facilities may currently be providing abortions; The Texas Tribune was able to independently verify 21 of them.

The abortion providers turned to the Supreme Court after a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month upheld most provisions of the state's strict abortion law, and then denied a request from abortion providers to delay the implementation of the abortion restrictions until they appealed to the high court. 

The abortion providers must still file that appeal to the Supreme Court, which will then decide whether to take up the case. The court's next term begins in October.

For now, if a doctor at other abortion facilities is performing the procedure without admitting privileges, the state "would cite the issue and refer it to the Texas Medical Board," which oversees the state's physicians, Williams said.