Judge Yields to Ruling on Texas Abortion Law

     AUSTIN (CN) - A federal judge yielded to a 5th Circuit ruling that restored a Texas abortion law, though he blasted the appeals panel's decision to lift an injunction blocking sections of the law.
     "There can be little doubt that H.B. 15 is an attempt by the Texas Legislature to discourage women from exercising their constitutional rights by making it more difficult for caring and competent physicians to perform abortions," U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks said in an order issued Monday.
     The 11-page order clashes with the 5th Circuit's decision in January to vacate a preliminary injunction that enjoined parts of the contentious Texas abortion bill.
     Nevertheless, Sparks deferred to the appeals panel's ruling and granted in part state officials' motion for summary judgment, noting that "the legal principles articulated by the panel left little room for meaningful discussion."
     Metropolitan Ob-Gyn P.A. dba Reproductive Services of San Antonio and its owner and director, Dr. Alan Braid, filed a federal class action on June 13, 2011, decrying Texas House Bill 15 as unconstitutional.
     Effective Sept. 1, 2011, the bill amended the Texas Woman's Right to Know Act and altered the process through which physicians obtain informed consent to perform abortions in the state. Physicians can lose their licenses for violating the provisions, which place several requirements on the doctors, such as making them conduct a sonogram and provide the patient with images and sounds of the fetus.
     Two days before the law was set to take effect, Sparks blocked four of its provisions for violating the First Amendment, plus three additional provisions that he deemed unconstitutionally vague. Texas appealed immediately.
     Declining to wait on Sparks' summary judgment findings, the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit vacated the preliminary injunction last month.
     The three-judge panel issued a 24-page ruling focusing on the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, reaffirmed recently by the 2007 decision in Gonzales v. Carhart.
     Sparks' latest order emphasizes that the claims in this action concern the effects the bill will have on physicians, rather than on women seeking abortions.
     "An early point of departure between this court's analysis and the panel's is that this court takes plaintiffs' claims at face value, and sees this as a case about doctors' freedom to enjoy their constitutional rights, and exercise their individual medical judgments, without unjustified state interference; whereas the panel apparently sees it as a case about women's right to an abortion - an issue specifically disclaimed by plaintiffs in this suit," Sparks said in a footnote Monday. "There is no question Casey speaks, extensively and authoritatively, on the question of a woman's right to an abortion; but it is almost silent on the First Amendment rights of doctors," Sparks went on to state. "The panel seems to assume Casey's silence means the First Amendment is of limited, or no, independent force, with respect to doctors in the abortion context; whereas this court interprets Casey's silence as an indication that no substantial First Amendment issue was created by the specific requirements of the statute in that case - requirements which, as the court has noted, were far less onerous than those imposed by the act in this case."
     "The concept that the government may make puppets out of doctors, provided it does not step on their patients' rights, is not one this court believes is consistent with the Constitution, in the abortion context or otherwise," Sparks wrote. "This court believes Texas overstepped its legitimate authority when it substituted its medical judgment for that of doctors, and imposed a uniform method of treatment for all patients, rather than allowing physicians to make medially appropriate, case-by-case determinations," Sparks concluded.