State sees sharp decline in number of abortion procedures in light of Supreme Court challenge against restrictions

Forrest Milburn

State abortion providers saw a sharp decline of more than 9,000 procedures in 2014 compared to the previous year, when the state legislature approved restrictions on clinic facilities and procedures.

Preliminary data from the Department of State Health Services shows there were 54,191 abortions in 2014, down from 63,849 in 2013. The drop in abortions represents a 14 percent decline in the first full year following increased abortion restrictions approved by the legislature in summer 2013.

Daniel Grossman, an investigator with the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, said his research studying the recent restrictions’ affect on access to abortion has shown that women are facing numerous obstacles — such as having to drive miles out of their way to the nearest open clinics — likely as a result of the law.

“Women whose nearest clinic had closed in the prior year from 2013 to 2014 on average were traveling about 85 miles to get to the clinic, and of course some women were traveling much farther, whereas women whose clinic hadn’t closed were traveling on average about 22 miles,” Grossman said.

The 2013 Texas abortion restrictions, also known as House Bill 2, are currently facing a stiff challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court from several Texas abortion providers in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The court heard oral arguments in the case on March 2.

Since the law took effect in October 2013, the number of state facilities that provide abortion services has dwindled from more than 40 to 19, with the possibility of another 10 closures if a majority of Supreme Court justices choose to uphold the law’s major provisions that are in question in the court case.

The two provisions in question in the case require that clinics meet the same regulatory standards as ambulatory surgical centers and that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of a clinic.

“If our law is upheld, women in Texas will be safer,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose office is defending the state in court, in a statement. “If any part is struck down, women in Texas will be less safe, and that would be a tragedy.”

Since 1990, there have been more than 10 instances where the Court has taken up the issue of abortion. In 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court ruled states can regulate abortions differently than other medical procedures, but that any approved regulations may not create an “undue burden” on women’s access to abortions.

Grossman said whether the law’s restrictions are too burdensome is one of the major questions the justices must ask themselves.

“I think that the significant decline in the abortion rate in Texas is evidence of an undue burden for some number of women,” Grossman said.

A final decision from the Court could come this summer.

The Court’s decision will have a national impact that could steer the conversation on abortion for the next decade or so.

Despite the possible sweeping ramifications, supporters of the Texas law say national trends of increased restrictions point to a growing consensus in their favor.

“These national trends speak to the fact that demand for abortion is decreasing as a whole,” AG spokeswoman Cynthia Meyer said in an email. “That’s a positive thing.”