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Jan 13, 2012 5:18 PM by Trovette Tottress

Court clears immediate enforcement of abortion law

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A federal appeals court cleared the way Friday for Texas to immediately begin enforcing a new law requiring doctors to conduct a sonogram before performing an abortion.

The three-judge panel agreed to a request by the state's Attorney General Greg Abbott to cut short the typical three-week waiting period between a ruling and its implementation. Earlier in the week, the judges had lifted a temporary stay issued by a district court judge who found the new law potentially unconstitutional, but did not at that point issue a legal mandate that would make the law enforceable.

Texas' new law requires doctors to conduct a sonogram before performing an abortion, to show the woman the image, to play the fetal heartbeat aloud and describe the features of the fetus, at least 24 hours before the abortion. There are exceptions in the case of rape, incest, fetal deformities and for women who have to travel great distances to reach a doctor.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals order means doctors fighting the law do not get the opportunity to appeal the decision Tuesday by Chief Judge Edith Jones before it goes into effect. Under normal circumstances it would not have taken effect until Jan. 31. The Center for Reproductive Rights, which supports the doctors, did not have an immediate reaction to Friday's order.

That clears the way for the Texas Department of State Health Services to issue rules for complying with the law and to prosecute doctors who do not obey it. Lawmakers wrote the law so that enforcement would begin 30 days after it took effect on Sept. 1, 2011.

A spokeswoman for State Health Services said agency officials are developing a schedule for enforcing the law.

"Given today's order we are moving forward with legal guidance from the attorney general's office," said Carrie Williams, an agency spokeswoman. "We're working toward full implementation and we are moving quickly to comply with the order. We've been preparing for this since the legislation passed during the last session."

The appeals court's opinion issued Tuesday had disagreed with District Court Judge Sam Sparks in Austin, who is hearing arguments next week on the overall constitutionality of the state specifying how a doctor talks to his or her patients. Jones found the doctors' objections insufficient to block enforcement of the law pending a final outcome of the trial in Sparks' courtroom.

One of the conservative supporters of the law, the Liberty Institute, welcomed the court's decision not to delay the law any further.

"This court order means that the Texas sonogram law is to be enforced effective immediately, as it should be," said Jonathan Saenz, the institute's legislative director.

The question of whether the law is constitutional, though, still resides with Sparks. He has scheduled oral arguments for Jan. 20 and could rule any time after that. No matter what he decides, both sides are ready to appeal the case back to the Fifth Circuit.

Jones made clear in her ruling on Tuesday that she finds nothing wrong with the law, even though federal judges have objected to similar laws in other states. The issue is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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