Aug 19, 7:21 PM EDT

El Paso abortion clinic will be first to reopen in Texas



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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- An El Paso clinic shuttered by Texas' tough abortion laws is set to become the first to reopen since the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked enforcement of key restrictions nearly two months ago.

The reopening of the Reproductive Services facility would mean the country's second most-populous state has 20 abortion clinics - down from 41 in 2012.

"They are ready and eager to reopen as soon as they get their license from the state," said Stephanie Toti, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents the El Paso clinic.

The clinic first sought a license six months ago and believed its efforts would be further helped by a June 29 Supreme Court ruling that suspended parts of Texas' abortion restrictions, which were approved in 2013 and are among the most-stringent in the nation. But the Texas Department of State Health Services didn't issue the license while it awaited guidance on how to proceed.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel provided that Monday, ordering Texas not to enforce a rule that clinics must meet hospital-like surgical standards that could delay the license for the El Paso clinic - and decreeing that state officials could be held in contempt of court for failure to comply.

Department of State Health Services spokeswoman Carrie Williams said she didn't know how long it will take to issue the clinic's license.

"We are processing the licensing information, but I'm not able to provide a timeframe yet," Williams said Wednesday in an email. "If our review shows everything is in place, we will issue the license without delay."

Texas' abortion law says, among other things, that clinics must meet hospital-like surgical standards and doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Opponents sued, arguing the regulations would further reduce the number of clinics statewide.

The Supreme Court's order granted an emergency appeal from the clinics and suspended the new regulations. That meant Texas' 19 clinics could continue to operate, including 10 that had been set to close under the new restrictions.

It also potentially cleared the way for El Paso's Reproductive Services to reopen. The clinic gave up its lease last year because the doctor performing abortions couldn't get hospital-admitting privileges but has sought to reopen after leasing space in a new location.

The temporary block will remain in effect at least until the high court decides whether to hear the clinics' appeal of a lower court ruling refusing to put the restrictions on hold. That isn't expected before fall, but the June decision is a strong indication that the Supreme Court will hear the full appeal, which could be the biggest abortion case before it in decades.

Texas is "home to 5.4 million women of reproductive age and the laws that are being challenged in this case have reduced the number of abortion clinics in the state by more than 75 percent," Toti said. "It will create a public health catastrophe if the number of clinics in the state remains at such a diminished level."

A second abortion provider in El Paso, Hilltop Women's Reproductive Clinic, closed previously but had already reopened in November - at least temporarily - amid the legal wrangling that preceded the Supreme Court's summer order.

The Texas-Mexico border city has been a flashpoint for court fights. Opponents of Texas' abortion law argue that closing clinics there would force women to travel 500-plus miles to San Antonio, even though abortions are performed at much closer clinics in neighboring New Mexico.

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