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Supreme Court won't block Texas abortion law

The U.S. Supreme Court Building is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images file

The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday decided not to block Texas' new abortion law that activists said had the effect of shutting down about a third of the abortion clinics in the state.

The justices voted 5-4 in favor of not taking action. The four liberal justices dissented.

"This is good news both for the unborn and for the women of Texas, who are now better protected from shoddy abortion providers operating in dangerous conditions," Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement. "As always, Texas will continue doing everything we can to protect the culture of life in our state."

Part of the new state abortion law requires doctors who perform the procedures to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinics.

Women's groups and doctors had challenged the law, and a federal court in Texas last month blocked enforcement of that provision the night before it was to take effect. The judge said the law had no medical purpose.

But just three days later, on Oct. 31, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, allowing the law to take effect. It said the law was an additional check on a doctor's qualifications.

Women's groups asked the U.S. Supreme Court to put the ban on enforcement back in place. 

"Over one third of the facilities providing abortions in Texas have been forced to stop providing that care and others have been forced to drastically reduce the number of patients to whom they are able to provide care. Already, appointments are being canceled and women seeking abortions are being turned away," they said.

But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott urged the court to allow the law to remain in force. It said the requirement for admitting privileges protects public health by fostering "a woman's ability to seek consultation and treatment for complications directly from her physician and by deterring patient abandonment." 

The state also said the National Abortion Federation counsels patients to verify that their doctors are "able to admit patients to a nearby hospital (no more than 20 minutes away)."

The Supreme Court's action doesn't decide whether the Texas law is constitutional. Instead, it addressed the issue of what it takes to overturn a stay imposed by the lower courts.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing in support of the high court order Tuesday, said the clinics could not overcome a heavy legal burden against overruling the appeals court. The justices may not do so "unless that court clearly and demonstrably erred," Scalia said in an opinion that was joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. 

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the liberal justices, said he expects the issue to return to the Supreme Court once the appeals court issues its final ruling. 

NBC News' Becky Bratu contributed to this report

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