A state cannot lean on its sovereign neighbors to provide protection of its citizens’ federal constitutional rights.Judge Jolly observed that the law "effectively extinguishes [a woman's constitutional right to end a pregnancy] within Mississippi's borders." The court did not, however, overturn the law or decide whether it was justified on grounds of safety, which was the justification offered by the State of Mississippi. The opinion preserved a federal district court stay of the law while the federal district court considers the constitutionality of the law's substance. Although I have called attention here (and elsewhere on this blog) to the impact of these admitting privilege laws on rural women, the Court did not mention that group of women in particular. The New York Times coverage by Campbell Robertson and Erik Eckholm, however, closed their report on the case with a rural note:
Other hospitals, especially in conservative and rural areas, have refused to grant privileges to abortion clinic doctors in order to avoid controversy.This statement hints at stasis and religion in rural communities but does not touch on the issue of material spatiality as a hinderance to abortion access. Read full New York Times coverage of the Fifth Circuit decision here.
Erik Eckholm and Manny Fernandez also mentioned rural women in their August 4, 2014 NYT story about the ongoing trial in federal district court in Austin, Texas regarding a requested injunction against a part of Texas H.B. 2 which is set to go into effect on Sept. 1. That part of the H.B. 2 law requires abortion providers in Texas to meet the requirements for ambulatory surgical centers (ASC). Litigation about the requirement follows hot on the heels of litigation about other provisions of H.B. 2--one requiring hospital admitting privileges and the other regulating medication abortions. Those other provisions of H.B. 2 were upheld by a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit this spring in a decision which opined that traveling 150 miles each way to procure an abortion does not constitute an undue burden. (Read my further commentary on that decision here). In any event, the Eckholm/Fernandez coverage is accompanied by useful maps that show how many abortion providers Texas had before H.B. 2 and how many they will have if the ASC requirement goes into effect. The earlier upheld provisions of H.B. 2 arguably had the greatest detrimental impact on providers in the lower Rio Grande Valley in particular because at least one clinic remained open in most of Texas's major cities. This ASC provision would close, among others, the only remaining clinic in the upper Rio GrandeValley, in El Paso.
Attending to the rural, Fernandez and Eckholm note that just 10 facilities are expected to remain open if the ASC provision is not enjoined by the federal district court. Here they touch on the rural-urban issue.
All of those remaining facilities will be in major metropolitan areas such as Dallas and Houston, and there will be no site providing abortions in the largely rural regions west or south of San Antonio. Many women who live near the border in McAllen and other cities in the Rio Grande Valley — one of the poorest sections of Texas — have already been making roughly four-hour, 240-mile trips to a facility in San Antonio to get an abortion.
Most puzzling of all the abortion news this week--at least from a ruralist perspective--is the decision made by Judge Myron Thompson of the federal district court in Alabama on Monday. The great news is that Judge Thompson struck down Alabama's admitting privileges law as unconstitutional. What I still have not sorted out is the part of his opinion that dealt with rural women and urban women, which I found puzzling. In short, Judge Thompson focused on the fact that the incremental harm of the admitting privileges law would be much greater on urban women than on rural women, noting that the former already faced considerable burdens on getting an abortion. Thompson expressed particular solicitude for the women in Mobile, Montgomery and Birmingham, all cities that would lose abortion providers if the Alabama law went into effect. Whatever his spin on abortion access along the rural-urban continuum, Thompson did offer this heartening conclusion:
If this requirement would not, in the face of all the evidence in the record, constitute an impermissible undue burden, then almost no regulation, short of those imposing an outright prohibition on abortion, would.
I'll return to his opinion and discuss it in more detail in a future post.
Meanwhile, I note that the New York Times coverage of Judge Thompson's decision did not note the rural angle--perhaps not surprising given his somewhat confusing spin on the rural-urban issue. Other media coverage of abortion news this week has also entirely overlooked these laws' disparate spatial impacts. See NPR's story yesterday here, and today's NYT coverage of the trial in the Texas case. The good news is that some judges and some journalists are talking about distance, about material spatiality. For the most part, however, they're still managing to overlook rural women …