Politics keeps shuttered abortion clinic from reopening in Beaumont

September 15, 2016

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that gave Whole Woman’s Health the ability to reopen its Beaumont abortion clinic, the organization has no intentions of resuming operations here, citing among other reasons the state’s political climate.

Whole Woman’s Health closed two of its five locations in Texas - Beaumont and Austin - after a state law passed in 2013 increased requirements on clinics.

That legislation was reversed by the Supreme Court on June 27.

Reopening in Beaumont is “not something we can do in the short run,” said Andrea Ferrigno, corporate vice president for Whole Woman’s Health.

In order to reopen, “we have to find space, we have to find staff, physicians, equipment,” she said, all of which would require a lengthy process and significant funds. “We had to let go of our spaces, we don’t have a building in Beaumont anymore or the appropriate space in Austin.”

The Beaumont clinic closed in March 2014 when it was unable to fulfill requirements implemented by the law, which included meeting the facility standards of ambulatory surgical centers and ensuring all doctors had admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.

In the majority U.S. Supreme Court opinion for the case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the court concluded “that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes.”

Breyer also wrote there was good evidence that the number of abortion clinics in Texas dropped from 40 to 20 because of the requirements. Whole Woman’s Health of Beaumont had been the only clinic east of Houston.

Any clinic looking to reopen would need to reapply for a state license, a process that takes at least three months, in addition to finding necessary spaces and staff.

Hiring physicians is a challenge because of the state’s political climate surrounding abortion, Ferrigno said.

“Physicians want to practice medicine, but in Texas they have to practice politics” in order to provide abortions, she said.

Instead of reopening the closed locations, Whole Woman’s Health is “focused on the clinics we have,” Ferrigno said, which include Fort Worth, McAllen and San Antonio, as well as four others in four other states.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in the communities we’re in,” she said, including making those communities “aware that our clinics are open and abortion services are open and legal,” something that clinic closures have increased questions about, according to Ferrigno.

While the June ruling gave the organization “optimism” and legal precedent in challenging legislation, Ferrigno said restrictions on clinics are “an ongoing thing in Texas,” and something she anticipates that they will continue to contend with at their existing sites.

Marva Sadler, director of clinical services and former director of the Beaumont clinic, said on the day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that though the ruling “definitely ended the fight against HB2,” she was already expecting to see more regulations in the future.

“Unfortunately, even prior to HB 2, I can’t remember the last time there was a legislative session that there wasn’t some kind of abortion restriction,” Sadler said.

That’s likely to be the case again this spring, according to statements from politicians and anti-abortion organizations after the ruling.

The Texas Alliance for Life said in a statement on June 28 that they were disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court decision, and that the organization would “scrutinize this decision, hostile as it is to reasonable safety regulations, to find ways to increase abortion facility safety regulations as much as possible.”

Gov. Greg Abbott also issued a statement on the ruling in June, saying that the decision “erodes States’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women.” He indicated that future regulation of abortion clinics would be likely, saying that “Texas’ goal is to protect innocent life, while ensuring the highest health and safety standards for women.”

From 2010 to 2014, the most recent year that Department of State Health Services statistics are available, the total number of abortions in Texas declined by 28 percent.

Three local counties’ abortion rates declined by more than the state’s during that time - Jefferson County by 38 percent, and Chambers and Jasper Counties, which both declined by more than 40 percent over the four-year period.

Numbers of abortions had a steep decline from 2013 to 2014. HB 2 became law in July 2013, and 2014 was the first year that the restrictions were in place. Statewide, there were about 13 percent fewer abortions in 2014 than the year before; in Jefferson County, the drop was 23.64 percent.

LTeitz@BeaumontEnterprise.com Twitter.com/LizTeitz