By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK, June 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Abortion rights advocates on Monday cheered a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down restrictions to abortion access in Texas, calling it a major victory for women and predicting similar laws are now endangered nationwide.
The high court ruled 5-3 that a Texas law imposing strict regulations on abortion doctors and facilities put an undue burden on women exercising their right to abortion, which has been legal in the United States since 1973.
Laws such as the Texas regulations are seen by critics as a backdoor way of restricting abortion access. Hardest hit are rural, poor women for whom distance and cost put abortions out of reach, they say.
The Texas law required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges, a formal affiliation that can be hard to obtain, at a hospital within 30 miles (50 km), and required clinics to have costly, hospital-grade facilities such as specified corridor width, floor tiles, parking spaces and elevator size.
"With today's Supreme Court ruling, I let out a big exhale," said Tracy Droz Tragos, director of "Abortion: Stories Women Tell," to be released in August by HBO Documentary Films. "At least for a moment, I am optimistic about the future of women in America."
Women have had their constitutional rights vindicated, said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights which represented the Texas clinics, in a statement.
"The Supreme Court sent a loud and clear message that politicians cannot use deceptive means to shut down abortion clinics," she said.
Texas claimed its law protected women's health, but critics said the regulations were medically unnecessary and intended to shut down clinics.
Writing the Supreme Court decision, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote: "We conclude that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes."
"Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women," he wrote.
Decrying the decision, anti-abortion groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List said Texas women will be unprotected from dangerous and unsanitary conditions.
"The abortion industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself and they know it," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the List, which supports anti-abortion political candidates.
Making a similar argument, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, in a statement said abortion providers "prey on the vulnerabilities of women who are in desperate situations, placing their bottom line over the health and safety of the patients."
"And the U.S. Supreme Court, in efforts to put the so-called 'right to abortion' above everything else, just let them get away with it," she said.
Since the restrictive law was passed in 2013, the number of abortion clinics in Texas, a state of 27 million people, dropped to 19 from 41.
"Today is a great day for women," said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a statement.
"The Supreme Court has powerfully reaffirmed a woman's constitutional right to make her own decisions about her health, family, and future, no matter her zip code," she said.
Similar laws are likely to be struck down, experts said, in states with restrictions such as requiring women to make repeated visits or requiring ultrasounds for women seeking abortions and that the images be shown to them.
"We've known for a long time that the purpose of these laws is to prevent women from having abortions," said reproductive rights attorney Kathryn Kolbert, who argued a major abortion case before the high court in 1992.
"It may not be the death blow, but it certainly makes it more difficult to put forward these types of laws with a straight face," she said.
Documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter, who made a film about abortion providers in Texas and elsewhere in "Trapped" that was released this year, said she was "elated."
"If there's any silver lining in Texas making such an egregiously unconstitutional law, it's that I think people have woken up and people are thinking you can't taking any rights for granted," she said. "You cannot sleep on your rights."
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)