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U.S. court hears appeal to ease parts of Texas abortion law

By Lisa Maria Garza

(Reuters) - A federal court heard an appeal from Planned Parenthood and other advocacy groups on Monday to a relax restrictive abortion law in Texas that has caused a dozen clinics to suspend services.

The law requires doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where the abortion is performed in case women have complications.

Given the vast size of Texas, the requirement places an unjust burden on clinics, Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the appeal, told a three-judge panel in Louisiana.

Only four of the 12 clinics that had suspended procedures have been able to resume procedures after meeting the requirements of the laws that went into effect in late October 2013.

"It's hard to tell what the court is going to do but everything in this case has happened really quickly, so we're looking at maybe a few weeks for an opinion," said Janet Crepps, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Whole Women's Health clinic in San Antonio and Abortion Advantage in Dallas recently resumed providing abortions after their doctors gained hospital privileges. A Planned Parenthood clinic in Austin resumed services in November.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals court in Louisiana, which is hearing the current appeal, on October 31 reinstated a restriction that was blocked by a lower court, thus allowing nearly all of the state's sweeping anti-abortion law to go into effect.

The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to block implementation of the law on November 4, allowing it to go into effect.

The current appeal in the circuit court is on the merits of the challenge, which was not addressed by the Supreme Court.

The law gained national headlines when Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis spoke against it in the Legislature for several hours, gaining her a nationwide following and encouraging her to announce her campaign for Texas governor.

The trend of state lawmakers passing sweeping abortion legislation rose sharply as more restrictions were enacted between 2011-2013 than in the entire previous decade, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that favors abortion but whose research is cited by both sides in the debate.

Twenty-two states enacted 70 abortion restrictions last year but courts have temporarily blocked similar admitting privilege regulations in Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota and Wisconsin, the report said.

Republican lawmakers who dominate the Texas statehouse have said they are not trying to block abortion but instead regulate the procedures in a way that matches the socially conservative nature of the state.

"These are common sense, and perfectly constitutional, regulations that further the state's interest in protecting the health and safety of Texas women," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement. Abbott is the running for governor on the Republican ticket

Abortion advocates, like Whole Women's Health Chief Executive Amy Hagstrom Miller, have voiced skepticism about the state's motives.

"Nobody took away a woman's right to make the decision but if she's unable to exercise that right because of lack of access then it's actually meaningless," she said.

The lawsuit is Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas Health Services v. Abbott, 13-862, U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas.

(This story has been corrected to removes phrase "which is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court" in second paragraph.)

(Reporting By Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and David Gregorio)

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