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Don't Expect Shuttered Abortion Clinics to Reopen Soon

A hallway at the Whole Woman's Health clinic in Austin. The clinic, one of 22 remaining abortion providers in the state, does not currently meet requirements that will take effect on Sept. 1. (Callie Richmond)

While the Supreme Court handed Texas abortion providers a  major victory Monday by overturning two key restrictions from the state’s 2013 abortion law, providers say they don't expect abortion clinics that shuttered in wake of the law to reopen soon. Along with financial and logistical constraints, some closed clinics will need to be relicensed by the state.

“Clinics don’t reopen overnight,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman’s Health, the lead plaintiff in the case, said in a conference call Monday afternoon. “We have a daunting task in front of us, determining whether and how we can reopen health centers.”

In a 5-3 vote, the high court overturned restrictions passed as part of House Bill 2 in 2013 that required all Texas facilities performing abortions to meet hospital-like standards including minimum sizes for rooms and doorways and pipelines for anesthesia. The court also struck down a separate provision, which had already gone into effect, that requires doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic.

This means Texas’ 19 remaining clinics — of the more than 40 that were open before HB 2 passed — will be able to continue performing abortions. But representatives of Planned Parenthood and Whole Woman’s Health — two of the state's largest abortion providers — said there is no timeline on when the clinics that closed due to HB 2 will reopen.

In the three years since Gov. Rick Perry signed HB 2, many of the shuttered clinics have sold their buildings or let go of their leases. Some had to surrender their abortion facility licenses to the state and will need to apply for a new one. They will also need to rehire staff and raise funds to acquire new medicine and equipment.

“It will take a while to rebuild the care infrastructure that used to be serving people across the state,” Hagstrom Miller said.

Some clinics may never reopen, ACLU Legal and Policy Director Rebecca Robertson said at a press conference Monday at ChoiceWorks, a former Whole Woman’s Health clinic that was forced to close in the wake of HB 2.

“This law was litigated for three years, and in that time, we saw a lot of damage,” she said. “Some of those clinics are likely not coming back. It sometimes takes years to rebuild access that we had before.”

Amanda Williams, executive director of the Lilith Fund, which provides financial assistance to women seeking abortions and abortion advocates, called the damage “irreversible.”

Prior to the enactment of HB 2, there were more than 40 licensed abortion facilities in Texas. That number dropped by almost half leading up to and in the wake of enforcement of the admitting-privileges requirement that went into effect in late October 2013. A U.S. district court judge struck down the surgical-center provision in August 2014, just two days before it was set to go into effect.

When that provision was briefly enacted on Oct. 2, 2014, by a U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, only eight clinics in Texas could provide abortions. Later that month, the U.S. Supreme Court put the ambulatory surgical center requirement on hold, effectively increasing the number of clinics that could provide abortions in Texas to 19.

The Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt explicitly cites the admitting privilege provision in explaining the clinic closings.

“In our view, the record contains sufficient evidence that the admitting-privileges requirement led to the closure of half of Texas’ clinics, or thereabouts,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion. “Those closures meant fewer doctors, longer waiting times, and increased crowding.”

The high court also found that the surgical-center requirement is unnecessary and does not improve women’s health and safety, as proponents of the law claimed.

“When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case,” Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.

While the historic ruling gives clinics that shuttered in the wake of HB 2 a green light to reopen, providers say they expect abortion opponents in state government to attempt to put up more roadblocks.

“I don’t know what the tactics of our opponents will be,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said about Texas lawmakers on the conference call Monday afternoon. “I’m sure they’re going to try to develop some new ideas.”

For more on this story, see how the  Supreme Court ruled on Texas’ abortion clinic restrictions, how  Texas lawmakers are reacting to the landmark decision, and what the ruling  means for Texas women

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed  here.

- Aneri Pattani, Texas Tribune. This article originally appeared here.