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Texas abortion ruling not a knockout, advocates say

Amid a contentious nationwide debate over abortion that a federal judge called "the most divisive issue to face this country since slavery," abortion rights supporters have celebrated that judge's ruling Monday to strike down key provisions of a controversial Texas abortion law.

But many abortion rights advocates say the ruling was more split-decision victory than knockout.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel's decision to uphold a provision of the law obligating physicians to use a particular protocol in nonsurgical, medication-induced abortions was slammed by opponents, who have claimed that part of House Bill 2 is outdated, costly and potential lethal.

"We are disappointed by the ruling on the medication abortion restriction, which ignores accepted medical practice and will force providers to use less safe methods," Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said in a statement. "But we will continue to fight and explore every option to protect women's health."

Groups that sued to block the law's requirement that physicians performing abortions in the state must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital applauded Yeakel's decision to strike down that provision, widely considered a cornerstone of the law.

"That was a victory for our patients, a victory for women in Texas, and a victory for women's health," said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood for America, one of the groups behind the lawsuit.

But the medication abortion restriction and other provisions left standing — including a prohibition on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and a mandate that all abortions take place in a surgical facility — as well as a pending appeal tempered the celebration. 

Amy Hagstrom Miller, the president of Whole Woman's Health, told the Associated Press that Yeakel should have offered a more sweeping decision that barred the medical abortion provision.

"Nearly 40 percent of the women we serve at Whole Woman's Health choose medication abortion and now Texas is preventing these women from the advances in medical practice that other women across the United States will be able to access," she told the wire service.

Although Yeakel ruled that Texas should enforce the standard Food and Drug Administration protocol, he said exceptions should be made to safeguard the health of the mother.

He wrote: "The medication abortion provision may not be enforced against any physician who determines, in appropriate medical judgment, to perform the medication-abortion using off-label protocol for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”

Texas Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion group, posted a message to its website Monday sharply criticizing the part of the ruling allowing exceptions to protect a mother's health.

The message said: "The loophole for lower standards for women whose life or health is threatened is absurd. If a woman’s physical life were truly in danger, a chemical abortion that involves ingesting multiple pills over a course of 48 hours would not be reasonable 'emergency care.'"

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, has filed an appeal of the judge's ruling with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. His office has contended that the law protects women and the life of the fetus.

Abbott, a Republican candidate for governor, has pledged to continue advocating for a reversal of the judge's decision.

"I have no doubt that this case is going all the way to the United States Supreme Court," Abbott told the Associated Press during a visit to Brownsville, Texas, as part of his bid to replace retiring Gov. Rick Perry.

Meanwhile, abortion clinics across Texas were taking appointments Tuesday morning.

Some of the 38 clinics in Texas had halted making patient appointments last week, ahead of the law's scheduled implementation. Advocates say about a third of those clinics would have been shuttered if not for the judge's decision.

"Literally today, women would have gone to the health centers they'd gone to for years and found the doors locked," Ferrero said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Related:

Protesters hold signs and cheer during a protest before the start of a special session of the Legislature in Austin, Texas July 1, 2013. Mike Stone / Reuters file