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NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Federal appeals court judges, hearing arguments on a restrictive Texas abortion law that critics say would shutter more than half the state's remaining abortion clinics, on Wednesday asked pointed questions of attorneys for both sides.
In a closely watched case, the three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is weighing a requirement struck down by a lower court that the state's abortion clinics must have certain hospital-like settings for surgeries.
Judge Catharina Haynes said she was troubled by the law's effective requirement that clinics be at least 7,000 square feet. While questioning the plaintiff's counsel, she also expressed concern about the broadness of the lower court's ruling striking down the size requirements together with more minor provisions, such as those covering soap dispensers.
"Why can't you have a sterile environment in a 3,000-foot (facility)?" she asked Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, who argued that the law was designed to reduce complications and improve patient care.
The Texas law also includes a provision requiring abortion practitioners to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic.
In his August ruling striking down the hospital-like setting requirements, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel lifted the restrictions on admitting privileges in two regions, McAllen and El Paso, saying they were forcing women in those areas to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion.
The 5th Circuit said on Oct. 2 that Texas could begin fully enforcing the law. Later that month, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that Yeakel's decision remain in effect, sending the case back to the 5th Circuit.
Both Haynes and Judge Jennifer Elrod asked Mitchell whether women in McAllen and El Paso would under Texas' law have adequate access to abortion, a line of questioning abortion rights advocates took as hopeful in a case they expect to lose in the conservative-leaning appeals court ahead of a likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"They appear to take seriously the undue burden faced by women in El Paso and McAllen," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of Whole Woman's Health, a plaintiff in the suit.
Before Texas passed abortion restrictions in 2013, there were 40 licensed abortion facilities in the state. That number has since dropped by about half, with advocates saying that number would be reduced to eight, at most, if the ambulatory surgical center requirement takes effect.
Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott