Legal Abortion Care Ends at Another Texas Clinic After Hospital Revokes Privileges Without Notice

A clinic in El Paso was forced to stop providing legal abortion care, and found no relief in a federal court on Wednesday when it asked for a restraining order against Texas' omnibus anti-abortion law.

A clinic in El Paso was forced to stop providing legal abortion care, and found no relief in a federal court on Wednesday when it asked for a restraining order against Texas' omnibus anti-abortion law. Medical law via Shutterstock

Another Texas clinic has stopped providing abortion care, this time in West Texas. On Wednesday afternoon, a federal judge in Austin declined to grant an El Paso doctor a temporary restraining order against HB 2, the Texas law that, among other things, requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The restraining order would have allowed one El Paso clinic, and one clinic in the Rio Grande Valley, to reopen and provide legal abortions.

Dr. Pamela Richter, who is one of a group of abortion providers who filed suit against the State of Texas in early April, had asked the court for a temporary restraining order against the admitting privileges provision of HB 2 after discovering her temporary admitting privileges had been revoked, without notice, by Foundation Surgical Hospital of El Paso.

Judge Lee Yeakel—who also heard an earlier suit concerning HB 2, Planned Parenthood v. Texas, last fall—said that while he believed “irreparable harm” would be caused to El Pasoans who could not obtain legal abortion care at Reproductive Services, the plaintiffs did not fulfill all parts of the four-pronged legal test for granting temporary restraining orders.

A deputy attorney general representing the state argued that the one million people who live in the El Paso area could visit the one remaining El Paso clinic, or travel across state lines to New Mexico—where abortion providers are not required to have admitting privileges—to obtain abortions.

“There’s one clinic to service approximately one million people, and there are no driving time issues” in El Paso, argued Jimmy Blacklock, referencing the 150-mile drive that residents of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley must make to obtain legal abortion care after both clinics there closed earlier this year.

According to court documents, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) informed Reproductive Services’ Dr. Richter in a letter dated April 1 that she was not in compliance with HB 2 because she lacked hospital admitting privileges; when Richter responded that she had temporary admitting privileges at Foundation, DSHS replied that it was “the agency’s view that Dr. Richter’s temporary admitting privileges did not satisfy the admitting privileges requirement.”

But attorneys for Reproductive Services subsequently discovered, after contacting Foundation directly, that “the hospital would no longer honor those admitting privileges” at all as of April 11. In court on Wednesday, one of Richter’s attorneys said that “no explanation was provided as to why” the doctor’s privileges had been revoked. Reproductive Services immediately ceased providing abortions, canceling more than 30 scheduled appointments.

“At no time were they providing abortions with the knowledge that Dr. Richter did not have admitting privileges,” said Stephanie Toti, counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, representing the plaintiffs.

Attorneys for Dr. Richter say she has performed about 17,000 legal abortion procedures in the last decade at Reproductive Services, none of which required a hospital transfer due to complications.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health and owner of the Rio Grande Valley Whole Woman’s clinic that closed in March, said at the downtown Austin courthouse on Wednesday afternoon that she could have reopened her clinic had Judge Yeakel issued the temporary restraining order (TRO).

“If we were to get a TRO, we would have reopened,” said Hagstrom Miller. Despite months of effort since the admitting privileges provision of HB 2 went into effect on November 1, 2013, Hagstrom Miller has been unable to find a hospital willing to grant her doctors who provide abortions with admitting privileges in the Valley.

In court documents, abortion providers say that “pressure from abortion opponents” has prompted Texas hospitals to revoke admitting privileges to doctors who provide abortions. Others, like Hagstrom Miller’s physician in the Rio Grande Valley, have been unable even to obtain applications for admitting privileges from local hospitals in their deeply socially conservative communities.

“No path is open to us,” she said.