U.S.

Texas abortion clinics turning patients away after new ruling

Tearful staff say they spent the day phoning scores of patients to cancel appointments after emergency court ruling

Abortion rights supporters rally on the floor of the State Capitol rotunda in Austin, Texas.
Tamir Kalifa/AP

AUSTIN, Texas – Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinic in Austin, Texas, is just off a freeway between a Wendy’s hamburger restaurant and a Brake Check. Visitors enter via a driveway and a parking lot designed to offer no mustering points for anti-abortion picketers.

A corridor into the building, known as the Robbie and Tom Ausley Clinic, channels visitors past plaques honoring individuals and businesses that fund the multimillion-dollar operation – which has seen a steady flow of women step through its doors over the years.

But on Friday more than one staffer at the clinic was in tears after spending a day phoning scores of patients to cancel appointments, and even turning one distraught woman away at the door.

The clinic, which is one of only six centers in Texas that provides abortions past 16 weeks of pregnancy, is now facing disaster. As a result of an emergency ruling by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that was issued late on Thursday evening, they can no longer legally provide abortions to women at any stage in their pregnancies.

That is because Planned Parenthood’s Austin clinic has only one abortion-providing physician on staff. A proviso of Texas’ new law, which a District Judge blocked as unconstitutional but which was allowed to stand last night by the Fifth Circuit, requires abortion-providing doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Planned Parenthood’s physician, who asked not to be named, has been unable to gain admitting privileges at any hospitals despite more than two months of effort.

Since clinic staff received the news that the abortion privileges requirement had gone into effect late Thursday night, they have called about 100 patients to cancel their appointments. Sarah Wheat, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas’ spokeswoman, told Al Jazeera that patients had responded with either silence or panic. One woman had not received the message in time and was turned away in tears from the clinic this morning.

Staff are now rerouting women to one of three abortion clinics still operating in Austin, to Planned Parenthood’s surgical center in Dallas, to Houston or even out of state to New Mexico if they need an abortion past 16 weeks of pregnancy.

This has been the case across Texas after the ruling. Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of abortion provider Whole Woman’s Health, said that three of her five clinics in the state had cancelled 45 appointments this morning. Fourteen patients arrived at her Fort Worth clinic today, she said, and were devastated to discover that they had no nearby options because the other two abortion providers in the city had also been unable to gain admitting privileges.

"The weird part of being an abortion provider is that often we're the first people to inform women about the law. Sometimes they get mad at us. They ask, 'Who decided this?' or 'What am I going to do? I can't afford another child'," Hagstrom Miller said.

Indeed, abortion providers warned that up to a third of abortion clinics in Texas would close if the admitting privileges law went into effect. They argued in a bench trial in the Western District Court last week that the bureaucratic hurdles to gain admitting privileges were so complex and lengthy that up to 13 clinics would stop providing abortions and 22,000 Texans would lose access to safe, affordable care.

Abortion clinics in Austin, Forth Worth, McAllen, San Antonio, Killeen, Harlingen and Lubbock have confirmed today that they are not providing abortions.

But while some abortion providers may gain admitting privileges in the future, many clinics may not be able to weather the uncertainty. Hasgtrom Miller said that up to 50 percent of her 52-strong staff would have to be furloughed, and eight physicians would be out of work.

Although Whole Woman's Health is a lead plaintiff in the suit against the law, Hagstrom Miller noted said that she did not have the budget to stay open for weeks without patients. "If we don't get admitting privileges, we'll have to start the business of closing clinics," she said. She said there wouldn't be visual images of shuttered clinics across the state because providers are still obligated to provide follow-up appointments to previous patients, while some also provide family planning care. "When you close down a facility and when you liquidate a business, it takes time," she said.

Larger providers like Planned Parenthood may be better set to weather the uncertainty. The Planned Parenthood surgical clinic in Austin also provides women’s health services such as contraception and cancer screenings. The family planning portion of their business is run by a separate legal entity in accordance with previous legal requirements in Texas. They will continue to remain open and to provide the full spectrum of women’s health services.

In the airy, high-ceilinged building that hosts the surgical center, the family planning center and the administrative offices, Sarah Wheat gestured to 150 wall tiles, each marking a major donor to Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. She said that they will do whatever they can to continue to provide reproductive health services. They will rely heavily on the local community to enable them to do this. "We want women to know that there is an entire community that supports their health," Wheat said, adding that they were considering using donor money to provide transport aid and clinic expansions in other cities, and to explore further legal options.

Robbie Ausley, a board member of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and the leading force behind the construction of the south Austin clinic that bears her name, said they would overcome the court’s decision and its impact. "Perseverance!" she said, "We will not lay down. We will never go away when we have this much compassion for women."

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