Following weeks of heated protests at the state capitol, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed into law on Thursday a package of abortion restrictions that is expected to drastically reduce access to abortion across the state.
House Bill 2 bans abortions 20 weeks after fertilization, four weeks earlier than the standard set by Roe v. Wade. It may also lead to the closure of all but five abortion clinics in the state, since it requires all clinics to become ambulatory surgical centers, even if they do not provide surgical abortions. The bill mandates that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the facility and requires them to administer the abortion-inducing medication RU-486 in person, rather than allow women to take it at home.
“This is an important day for those who support life and for those who support the health of Texas women,” Perry said. “In signing House Bill 2, we celebrate and further cement the foundation on which the culture of life in Texas is built.”
State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) staged an 11-hour filibuster of an earlier version of the bill during the first special session of the legislature that prevented Senate Republicans from passing it, but Perry subsequently called a second session in order to fast-track a vote on it. Both houses of the legislature passed the bill last week.
"When Governor Perry signed the bill, he signaled a clear break with Texas families," Davis said in a statement shortly after the bill was signed. "Governor Perry and other state leaders have now taken sides and chosen narrow partisan special interests over mothers, daughters, sisters and every Texan who puts the health of their family, the well-being of their neighbors, and the future of Texas ahead of politics and personal ambitions."
Republican backers of the bill say that it protects women's health by forcing abortion providers to meet higher standards. They said the case of Kermit Gosnell, the illegal abortion provider in Philadelphia who was recently convicted of murder, shows the new rules are necessary. The bill's supporters also point to recent public polling that suggests a majority of Texans favor a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, which account for less than 2 percent of abortions in the state.
Opponents of the bill have vowed to fight it in court, arguing that it is unconstitutional because it prohibits abortions before the fetus is viable outside the womb, which usually occurs around 24 weeks. The Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that women have a legal right to end their pregnancies up until viability.
The bill's opponents also say it severely interferes with a woman's ability to access abortion in Texas. Only five of the 42 abortion clinics in the state are currently licensed as ambulatory surgical centers, and the rest would have to undergo millions of dollars in renovations by September 2014 in order to meet the requirements, which include things like mandatory hallway widths, janitors' closets, specific air-flow systems and locker rooms with showers for physicians.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, operates six abortion facilities in Texas, only one of which is an ambulatory surgical center. She said the other five are in danger of shutting down, and noted one of her clinics is currently the only abortion provider in a 350-mile radius. "It's going to be heartbreaking, really," she told HuffPost in an interview. "I'm not sure that I'll be able to find a solution for women by September 2014. And as a small business owner, I have never laid anyone off before, so that's in the back of my mind as well."
Miller said there is no difference in safety between her smaller abortion clinics and her ambulatory surgical center. "This bill has nothing to do with patient safety," she said. "Our ambulatory surgical center and our clinics offer the exact same procedure, and there are no more complications at the clinics, the infection rate is the same, the safety rate is the same, there are no increased post-operative problems -- it's exactly the same. One is just a lot more expensive to build and run."
Miller said she is also scrambling to help her doctors procure admitting privileges at local hospitals within the 90-day deadline set by the new law, but she has no hope for those in at least two locations. "Hospitals around here are afraid to have an abortion provider on their staffs," she said.
If Miller's clinics are forced to shut down, along with dozens of others, poor women in rural areas will have to travel hundreds of miles to find an abortion provider twice -- or pay for a hotel -- because the state already mandates a 24-hour waiting period between the consultation with the doctor and the abortion procedure. Opponents of the bill worry that women will not be able to afford childcare, transportation, and two days off work in addition to the cost of the procedure, and they will resort to unsafe, Gosnell-type illegal providers or self-administered abortions.
Democrats and reproductive rights organizations have vowed to fight the law in court on numerous grounds. "The next battle is going to be a court challenge. Immediately. Without question," Democratic state Sen. Royce West told The Huffington Post last week. "As soon as it's signed by the governor, it's going to be challenged."
This article was updated with a statement from Wendy Davis.