Two Texas doctors who had been performing abortions for more than three decades lost their legal ability to do so at the end of March when their new hospital revoked their privileges.
This week, a judge temporarily reinstated their positions. But the doctors face an April 30 court hearing to see if that temporary order will remain in place.
The abortion case, like many others in Texas at the moment, was sparked by legislation passed last year that placed significant limits on who can perform abortions and where.
A U.S. appeals court judge ruled March 27 that the law did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Abortion advocates have asked the full U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the decision, but the law stands in the meantime.
As a result of the restrictions, the number of abortion providers in the state of 26 million has fallen to about 25 from nearly 50 a few years ago. Abortion advocates expect five to 10 to be left by year's end if their legal challenges fail.
"It has come to our attention that you perform 'voluntary interruption of pregnancies' as a regular part of your medical practice," the hospital wrote in a letter to each doctor. "As a matter of policy, UGHD does not perform these procedures due to the fact that obstetric procedures are not within UGHD's scope of services and that UGHD does not have the capacity to treat complications that may arise from voluntary interruption of pregnancies."
The decision was significant because HB2, the new abortion law, requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — within 30 miles of their clinic — in case a patient needs hospitalization because of complications.
Robinson and Ahluwalia received access to the hospital this winter, but when that privilege was revoked, they could no longer legally perform abortions.
"There is no legitimate non-discriminatory reason" for the revocation of their privileges, attorneys for the doctors wrote in a lawsuit filed Thursday in Dallas County Court. They argue that Texas law states that it's illegal for hospitals to discriminate against physicians because they perform or don't perform abortions.
The attorneys say the hospital "caved" into demands of protesters who had threatened to picket outside the hospital if Robinson and Ahluwalia were not let go. The hospital's revocation letters — which cited the disruption caused to its business by talk of abortions — arrived the day before the threatened protest.
The hospital has yet to respond to the lawsuit with its own legal filing. Hospital President Donald Sapaugh said officials would comply with the temporary order until the hearing April 30.
“It’s the policy of University General Hospital Dallas to provide high-quality patient care and comply with all applicable laws and regulations, including those that prohibit discrimination with respect to admitting-privileges,” Spaugh said. "The temporary restraining issued by the court was entered into without the hospital or its counsel present in court to present its side of the case."
The lawsuit states that hospital's excuses for their termination were "inept." The doctors' abortion patients would be unlikely to be transferred to UGHD in an emergency because several hospitals are closer, according to the suit.
To those who say that the doctors should choose another hospital, the attorneys said that sifting through different hospitals' eligibly criteria is time-consuming and that in any event, hospitals have up to 170 days to respond to an application.
The attorneys for the doctors have asked for quick action by the court, noting that the patients caught in the middle of this are in "time-sensitive situations."
The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights is leading another challenge to the admitting privileges requirement through a separate lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Austin.
"It is the woman — not a hospital mired in political biases or politicians who presume to know better — who should decide the best reproductive health care choice for herself and her family," the center's Chief Executive Nancy Northup said in a statement this week.
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