The stakes in the two-day trial over Planned Parenthood's challenge to Texas' new abortion restrictions, which kicked off yesterday in Austin, are rather low. Whatever decision U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel hands down will be appealed to the 5th Circuit, then the Supreme Court, leaving the law in constitutional limbo for months to come.
Yeakel is well aware that his role will be limited.
"This court's job is not to rule on whether women should be allowed abortions," he said but to decide whether the law falls within "existing constitutional confines or whether it does not."
The hearings, though, offer the first chance to for each side to formally lay out its case and craft the arguments upon which the case will ultimately be decided.
Planned Parenthood and its co-plaintiffs, American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights, tread familiar ground, arguing that the law places an unconstitutional burden on women. Two provisions in particular that are set to take effect next Tuesday-- one requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, the other mandating that the abortion-inducing drugs be administered in accordance with strict Food and Drug Administration guidelines developed in the '90s -- would deprive tens of thousands of women to safe, legal abortions.
"I believe that both of these provisions will harm women - - harm Texas women," Dr. Paul Fine, the medical director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston, testified. The rules are "absolutely not" necessary and said they will turn back the clock either two (Houston Chronicle) or three (Bloomberg) decades.
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The testimony from lawyers representing the state was only slightly more surprising. Whereas the talking point trotted out during this summer's legislative debate was that the measures were designed to protect women's health, Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell based his argument on the fetus.
"The constitution allows the state to protect fetal life in this manner so long as it does not impose an undue burden," he told the court, adding that the state has an obligation to protect "the life of the unborn" and persuade women to "opt for childbirth," according to The Dallas Morning News.
So long as Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, that's unlikely to pass muster, but when the Supreme Court inevitably tackles one of the abortion-access cases currently wending their way through the federal court system, all bets are off.