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Opening day for Texas's embattled abortion clinic

The last clinic in Texas's Rio Grande Valley has gotten a surprise revival. But they may just have one week.
Whole Woman's Health Clinic prepared to reopen on Sept. 4, 2014, in McAllen, Texas.
Whole Woman's Health Clinic prepared to reopen on Sept. 4, 2014, in McAllen, Texas.

McALLEN, Texas – The staff at Whole Woman's Health was still looking for the key to the front door. The building, up for sale until recently, had been hastily taken off the market. And the volunteers unpacking boxes and sorting paperwork on Thursday night were last here for a candlelit vigil in March, after Texas’s restrictive abortion law shut the doors of the last standing abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley.

Now they were preparing for the clinic to reopen its doors Friday morning thanks to a surprise reprieve from a federal court – for how long, no one knows. 

“It’s definitely worth it even if it’s just for one day,” Andrea Ferrigno of Whole Woman's Health told msnbc over the whirr of activity. “For many months, we’ve had to say no to women. Now, we get to say ‘Yes, you’re welcome to come in. Yes, we’re going to help you.’”

There were already 23 patients booked for Friday.

It was a rare spot of good news for abortion access in Texas, and it was possibly a fluke. One federal judge in Austin said Texas had violated the rights of the women in the Rio Grande Valley, including with the new law's provision requiring admitting privileges for providers at local hospitals.

But three judges from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, unimpressed that the law has made life that much more difficult for the Valley’s women, overruled him before to let the same part of the law to go into effect. Few observers expect the Fifth Circuit court to change course on Whole Woman’s eventual fate, but there was one surprise: That it is waiting until after a September 12 hearing to rule on Whole Woman’s case. The court will also decide on even more devastating part of the law that was slated to go into effect on September 1: that abortion clinics convert to ambulatory surgical centers, an almost impossible task for most clinics. If that provision is enforced, it will leave just 8 or fewer abortion clinics in the nation’s second-largest state.

“We’ve gone through a lot of rounds,” said Ferrigno ruefully, and not just in the courts. In the statehouse: flanked by activists, state Senator Wendy Davis held an eleven-hour filibuster in June 2013 to try to block the law, but Governor Rick Perry ordered a second special session to push it through anyway. Davis is now the Democratic candidate for governor.

Whole Woman’s Health’s doctors has applied for admitting privileges at local hospitals within thirty miles of the clinic, as the law required, but all doors have been closed to them.

That, of course, was what the crafters of the law had expected – that it would put providers out of business – though the official rationale had been to protect women’s health.

Pro-choice advocates say it does the opposite. “Shutting this clinic down put more women in danger here than ever before,” said Audrey Perez, a 21-year-old local activist and former Whole Woman's patient who had come to help the clinic ready for its opening day. “Because there’s no such thing as no abortion. There’s only no safe abortion.” 

Without legal access, women in one of the poorest regions of the country are faced with even more precarious choices. They can try to get an appointment in San Antonio, nearly 250 miles away and through internal immigration checkpoints, a daunting prospect for many. Or they can obtain misoprostol, an abortion-inducing pill sold over the counter across the Mexican border, minutes away, which can be unsafe if taken without a doctor’s supervision.

For now, the women here who want to end their pregnancies have another way – even if it’s just for a few days.

Ferrigno is ready to be shut down again. “We’re hoping it won’t come to that, for the well-being of this community and Texas in general,” she said. “It will definitely be another heartbreak.”