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Abortion rights groups sue Texas over procedure ban

The Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood announced on Thursday they're suing over a provision in Texas' Senate Bill 8, which outlaws dilation and evacuation abortions.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include Attorney General Ken Paxton's comment and identify the lawsuit's lead plaintiff

Texas is heading to court over a state law going into effect in September banning the most common second-trimester abortion procedure.  

The Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood announced on Thursday they're suing over a provision in Texas' Senate Bill 8 bill that outlaws dilation and evacuation abortions. In that procedure, a doctor uses surgical instruments to grasp and remove pieces of fetal tissue. SB 8 only allows the procedure to be done if the fetus is deceased.

Whole Woman's Health, a Texas reproductive health provider, is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a news release that Texas legislators "have once again compromised the health and safety of the women they were elected to represent" to appease abortion opponents.

“The law we challenged today in Texas is part of a nationwide scheme to undermine these constitutional rights and ban abortion one restriction at a time," Northup said. "We are prepared to fight back using the power of the law wherever politicians compromise a woman’s ability to receive the care she needs.”

Joe Pojman, executive director for Texas Alliance for Life, said in a news release that the new law protects "mothers and their unborn babies," and that the lawsuit "was not a surprise." 

"We are hopeful the state will prevail on this latest legal challenge and we are committed to helping Texas defend the law," he said. 

Medical professionals deem the dilation and evacuation method the safest way to perform an abortion on a pregnant woman, and reproductive rights groups have said this change would subject women to an unnecessary medical procedure. Abortion opponents call the procedure “dismemberment” abortions and argue it’s inhumane. 

Provisions similar to SB 8 have been halted in Louisiana, Kansas, Oklahoma and Alabama, according to the center's news release.

The lawsuit is the third time in less than a year Texas has had to defend its abortion policies in federal court. In January, a federal judge halted Texas’ proposed rule requiring health providers to bury or cremate fetuses, citing its vagueness and potential to harm patients. 

In February, the same judge ruled the state could not boot Planned Parenthood affiliates from Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled. The state vied to remove Planned Parenthood from Medicaid after a series of heavily edited videos released in 2015 appeared to show Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast employees admitting to selling aborted fetal tissue for medical research.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is appealing both rulings.

In an email statement, Paxton said: “Dismemberment abortions are a gruesome and inhumane method of ending human life. Senate Bill 8 protects the dignity and sanctity of life, along with the integrity of the medical profession. We are honored to defend SB 8 in court.”

SB 8 is also a sore point for reproductive rights advocates for its other provisions. That includes banning hospitals and clinics from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers, outlawing "partial-birth abortions," which are already illegal under federal law, and forcing health care facilities to bury or cremate any fetal remains, regardless if they’re from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. 

Abortion opponents are still smarting from the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last summer over the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt case. In June 2016, the high court voted 5-3 that Texas could not require abortion facilities to have minimum room sizes, pipelines for anesthesia or doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the facility.

Just a year after the ruling, abortion restriction challenges in courts in Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin have been blocked or repealed, with judges citing the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt  ruling. 

But the Supreme Court ruling has had little influence on Texas legislators' efforts to pass anti-abortion bills. Gov. Greg Abbott has put abortion bills on the docket for the the 30-day special session that started July 18. That includes bills to stop local governments from giving funding to abortion providers and their affiliates; prohibiting health insurance companies from paying from abortions unless they are medically necessary; and requiring health care facilities to release more detailed data on abortion complications. 

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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