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U.S. judge halts major part of Texas law restricting abortions

By Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garza

AUSTIN Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. judge struck down parts of a law restricting abortions in Texas, saying in a decision on Friday that a provision requiring clinics to have certain hospital-like settings for surgeries was unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said the so-called "ambulatory surgical center requirement" was unjust because it placed an undue burden on women by reducing the number of clinics where they could seek abortions and the regulations had no compelling public health interests.

"The court concludes, after examining the act and the context in which it operates, that the ambulatory-surgical center requirement was intended to close existing licensed abortion clinics," Yeakel wrote in the decision.

The requirement was to have gone into effect on Sept. 1. Under it, clinics would have had to meet a set of building standards ranging from widening halls to having facilities for certain surgeries that abortion rights advocates said were unnecessary, especially when an abortion is medically induced.

The state argued the requirement reduces complications and increases patient care.

Advocacy groups who brought the suit, including Whole Women's Health, said abortion complications were rare. It argued the requirement was costly and would leave almost 1 million Texas women of reproductive age at least 150 mile from an abortion clinic.

The Texas Attorney General's office said it would appeal the decision and expected success, especially after a U.S. circuit court upheld the law that went into effect late last year.

For the border cities of McAllen and El Paso, Yeakel struck down previously imposed regulations requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinics.

The Texas Hospital Association, representing more than 400 hospitals, called the restrictions unnecessary because women experiencing abortion complications can go to an emergency room and be treated, and did not need their abortion doctor to be on the hospital staff for this to happen.

Yeakel said because of the restriction, women in south Texas, one of the state's poorer regions, would have to travel as much as 500 miles to go to an abortion clinic.

Before the admitting privileges regulation went into effect last year, there were 40 licensed abortion facilities in Texas. That number dropped by about half since then and would have been reduced to eight, at most, if the ambulatory surgical center requirement had gone into effect, Yeakel cited evidence as saying.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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