Louisiana abortion law challenge ruling on Friday if no prior agreement reached

With the measure set to go into effect Monday, a Baton Rouge federal judge encouraged attorneys Thursday to reach an agreement in a legal fight over whether to block enforcement of a new Louisiana law that requires abortion clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

The law, backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and passed overwhelmingly in the 2014 Legislature, was pushed by anti-abortion forces who said it was aimed at protecting the health of women who get abortions by ensuring access to proper care if they have complications from the procedure.

The law’s detractors say the restrictions are medically unnecessary and designed to limit abortion access.

State Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert filed court documents Thursday stating she has “no intention” of enforcing the law — Act 620 — against physicians who applied for admitting privileges during the act’s grace period but who have not received answers on those applications.

The grace period runs from June 12 to Sept. 1.

In March, a panel of judges of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears challenges from district court judges’ decisions in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, decided that nearly identical restrictions in Texas pass constitutional muster.

However, the appellate panel also said the government defendants could not enforce the admitting-privileges law against a doctor who applied for those privileges during the Texas law’s grace period but had not yet received a response before the law’s effective date.

Kliebert noted in her court filing that the Texas law was the model for Louisiana’s law.

“Consequently, I have no intention of enforcing the Act against the physicians in this matter until their admitting-privileges applications have been acted on finally by the respective hospitals,” she stated.

Kyle Duncan, an attorney for DHH and Kliebert, referenced the secretary’s declaration and told U.S. District Judge John deGravelles — a President Barack Obama appointee — at a hearing Thursday that the department would like assurances from the abortion clinics and doctors who sued the state last Friday that they’ll drop their request for a temporary restraining order against the state.

The clinics and doctors who are plaintiffs in the suit say the law is unconstitutional.

Dimitra Doufekias, an attorney for clinics and doctors, argued there are many unsettled questions as the effective date of the new law rapidly approaches.

“It’s not clear what will happen on Sept. 1,” she told the judge. “There’s so much flux right now.”

DeGravelles said he will issue a ruling Friday.

There are five abortion clinics in Louisiana: one each in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Metairie, Shreveport and Bossier City. The two north Louisiana clinics and the one in Metairie filed the lawsuit, along with two physicians.

In neighboring Mississippi, new rules on admitting privileges there would have shut down that state’s only abortion clinic. A different 5th Circuit panel decided in July by a 2-1 vote that Mississippi lawmakers went too far, saying the law “effectively extinguishes” a woman’s right to choose “within Mississippi’s borders.”

Proponents of Louisiana’s law say the measure will ensure women have access to proper care if they have complications from an abortion.

The law requires every doctor providing an abortion to have active admitting privileges at a hospital not more than 30 miles from where the abortion is performed. The hospital must provide obstetrical or gynecological health care services.

Abortion-rights groups say doctors who provide the procedure have difficulty getting hospital privileges, not because of their credentials but because hospitals are leery of the attention those privileges could draw.

Opponents of the new law also say the requirement is unnecessary, because patients in distress are automatically treated in emergency rooms and that it gives religious-affiliated hospitals veto power over who can work in an abortion clinic and, by extension, whether a clinic can remain open.

The lawsuit by the clinics and doctors states that legal abortion is “one of the safest procedures in medical practice.”

William Rittenberg, another attorney for the clinics and doctors, has said the number of complications that occur is a tiny fraction.