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El Paso clinic shuttered by Texas' tough abortion law reopens

The reopening of an El Paso abortion clinic on Tuesday brings to 20 the number of abortion clinics licensed in America's second most-populous state, according to a list provided by health officials. But that's still down from 41 in 2012 – and the facility could close again soon.

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The Hilltop Women's Reproductive clinic is photographed in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 11, 2014. The HillTop Women's Reproductive Clinic closed briefly because of the new law, but reopened in November, a month after a separate US Supreme Court ruling blocked key restrictions.

Juan Carlos Llorca/AP/File

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An El Paso clinic shuttered by Texas' tough 2013 abortion law reopened Tuesday, the first in the state to do so since the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked enforcement of some of the key restrictions three months ago.

The Reproductive Services clinic, so close to the Texas-Mexico border that its windows offer views of Ciudad Juarez across the Rio Grande, is now taking appointments and should begin performing abortions next week.

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The reopening brings to 20 the number of abortion clinics licensed in America's second most-populous state, according to a list provided by health officials. But that's still down from 41 in 2012 — and the facility could close again soon.

A June 29 Supreme Court order only created a temporary block that will hold until the high court decides whether to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling refusing to suspend the Texas restrictions. It's not clear when that decision will come, but if the Supreme Court eventually hears the full appeal it could be the biggest abortion case in decades.

"We're so excited about the reopening, but the discouraging part is we could be closed down at any time," said Marilyn Eldridge, president of Nova Health Systems, which operates Reproductive Services. She and her late husband, a Christian minister, first opened the clinic in 1977.

"This is more difficult than it has ever been," Eldridge added in a phone interview. "I think it's because there is so much discussion about something that should be a very personal matter."

Texas in 2013 approved some of the nation's tightest abortion rules, prompting thousands of demonstrators on both sides of the issue to pack the state Capitol in Austin. Then-Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis temporary blocked the law with a 12-plus-hour filibuster, but the GOP-controlled Legislature approved it easily in a subsequent special session.

The law mandates that clinics meet hospital-like surgical standards and that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Opponents sued, arguing that the regulations would force nearly all Texas abortion clinics to close.

Eldridge's clinic doesn't meet surgical standards nor have a doctor with hospital admitting privileges. Its reopening during the court-ordered stay makes it the second facility of its kind to do so in El Paso. HillTop Women's Reproductive Clinic closed briefly because of the new law, but reopened in November, a month after a separate U.S. Supreme Court ruling blocked key restrictions.

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The border city has been a flashpoint for abortion lawsuits. Advocacy groups say closing clinics there would force women to travel about 550 miles to San Antonio, even though abortions are performed at much closer facilities in nearby New Mexico.

Eldridge's clinic first began looking to reopen last October, but lost its previous location and had to find a new one. It also had to apply for a new license. The clinic first applied in February and believed its position was further strengthened by the Supreme Court's June ruling.

State authorities, however, didn't issue the license while they awaited court guidance on how to proceed. On Aug. 17, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ordered Texas not to delay licensing the El Paso clinic, and it was issued 10 days later.

Texas Department of State Health Services spokeswoman Carrie Williams said no other requests for new licenses are pending. Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, said he's not worried other abortion clinics will follow the lead of Eldridge's facility.

"We believe this is an isolated case," Pojman said.

Eldridge said her clinic will have about six staffers, some of whom helped pull furniture out of storage. The clinic hopes to see up to 2,000 patients annually, and also provide other services such as contraception and health exams.

She said with the ongoing lawsuits, some would-be patients might not realize her clinic has reopened right away.

"We feel like it will take a little while," Eldridge said, "but people will find us."