AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A pivotal abortion case coming before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday forces the justices to ponder seemingly mundane matters such as corridor width, the swinging motion of doors, floor tiles and the angle that water flows from drinking fountains.
Abortion providers have challenged a Republican-backed law passed in Texas in 2013. At issue are two provisions, one involving facility standards for abortion clinics and the other involving physician affiliation with hospitals.
The state has said the voluminous hospital-grade standards that abortion clinics must meet were necessary to protect patient safety. Abortion rights advocates contend the regulations were intended to cause the closure of clinics by forcing them into costly construction for unnecessary facilities that serve no public health purpose.
The regulations have been put on hold by a lower court pending the Supreme Court ruling. The other portion of the law being challenged, requiring abortion doctors to have “admitting privileges” at a local hospital, has gone into effect.
A 117-page document outlines the building standards and operations for so-called ambulatory surgical centers in Texas.
These standards dictate minimum corridor width, the spacing of beds, the number of parking spaces, elevator size, building ventilation, electrical wiring, plumbing, floor tiling, the size of patient recovery rooms, the presence of hand-washing fixtures in bathrooms and the availability of liquid or foam soap dispensers.
The regulations specify the size and swinging motion of doors, the material for door frames, the need for washable ceilings, the angle that water flows out of drinking fountains, the availability of waiting areas with toilets, public pay phones, potable drinking water and a reception area.
They also require the existence of spaces for private interviews relating to social services or other matters, offices for business transactions, storage rooms, medical records storage and wheelchair storage.
For abortion clinics not originally built to meet these standards, it could be easier to rebuild completely than to retrofit an existing facility, according to abortion rights advocates.
A U.S. district judge said in 2014 that if the law were fully implemented, the number of licensed abortion clinics in Texas, a state with 27 million people, would drop to eight from the 40 that existed before the measure took effect.
The shorthanded Supreme Court, with only eight justices following Antonin Scalia’s death on Feb. 13, is due to hear arguments on Wednesday and issue a ruling by the end of June.
The Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion policy and supports abortion rights, said five other states have laws requiring abortion clinics to meet the ambulatory surgical center requirements: Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Utah. As in Texas, the Kansas regulations have been put on hold by a court.
Reporting by Jon Herskovitz