Everything is bigger in Texas. Including, it seems, the degree of influence which the anti-abortion lobby is able to exert over both lawmakers and members of the judiciary.
A federal judge has allowed the state to begin enforcing a high-profile new law which will require physicians who perform terminations to first either show, or describe, an ultrasound image of the unborn child to their patient.
The measure has been introduced at the behest of anti-abortion campaigners, who hold enormous sway over the largely Republican state's legislature. They believe that pregnant women who are familiarised with the appearance of their foetus are less likely to green-light its termination. The law requires physicians to perform an ultrasound on pregnant women, show and describe the image to them, and play sounds of the unborn child's heartbeat. Patients are allowed to decline to view images or listen to the heartbeat; but they must listen to a description of the exam.
Texas has duly acquired the toughest abortion laws in the US. Similar rules have been introduced in Oklahoma and North Carolina, but are currently on hold pending legal challenges.
This week's decision follows a year of legal challenges. An initial lawsuit against the legislation was filed by a coalition of pro-choice physicians last summer. It alleged that the law violated their constitutional right to free speech, since it forced them to become a "mouthpiece" for the state's ideological message. Sam Sparks, a US District Judge from Austin who issued this week's ruling, had originally sided with those physicians, agreeing that the new law did indeed interfere with free speech rights, and was unconstitutional. However his decision was overturned last month by a three-judge panel from the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, who said doctors could be legally required to provide "truthful information" to a patient.
Judge Sparks said on Monday that he would reluctantly defer to the higher status of his colleagues. But he said his decision came out of respect for their official standing, rather than a sudden conversion to their way of thinking on an issue which has for years been at the front of America's culture wars.
In a written opinion, Judge Sparks criticised the appeal court for "making puppets out of doctors" and "eviscerating" them of their rights to free speech which are supposedly guaranteed by the First Amendment. He added that the law placed "heavy-handed, paternalistic and impractical restrictions on the practice of medicine".
"The act requires doctors to attempt to discourage their patients from obtaining abortions... even in cases where the doctors have determined that an abortion is, for any number of reasons, the best medical option," he said in the opinion. "There can be little doubt that [the law] is an attempt by the Texas Legislature to discourage women from exercising their constitutional rights by making it more difficult for caring and competent physicians to perform abortions."
Though the new regulations officially took effect at 6pm on Monday, opponents aren't about to give up the fight against it. The Centre for Reproductive Rights is seeking a full appeal hearing before all 17 judges on the Fifth Circuit.
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