Austin, Texas, Nov. 28--In what some activists are calling the most important case involving reroductive rights in the state's history, the Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday over whether low-income women are entitled to Medicaid-paid abortions.

The justices will take up a case filed in the mid-1990s by three abortion providers - the Routh Street Clinic and Fairmont Center in Dallas and Austin's Reproductive Services - that asserted that low- income women are being denied protection under Texas' Equal Rights Amendment.

Texas permits use of public funds to pay for abortions only in cases of rape, incest or when a pregnant woman's life is in danger. But the abortion providers who brought the lawsuit said public funds should also cover abortions that doctors deem medically necessary. "If a man who is eligible for Medicaid goes in for a medically necessary procedure, Medicaid pays for it," said Catherine Mauzy, an Austin lawyer representing the abortion providers. "To deny a medically necessary procedure for a woman is discriminatory on its face and prohibited under the Texas Constitution."

But abortion opponents said the term "medically necessary" can be broadly interpreted. A court ruling in the providers' favor would allow a raid on the state treasury by clinics that perform abortions for low-income women, they say. "This highly elastic legal term will be stretched to include elective abortions, including those for birth control, repeat abortions, partial-birth abortions and illnesses not requiring abortion," said Joe Pojman, executive director of Greater Austin Right to Life, who called the case "the most important ever" of its kind in Texas. "We do not believe that courts should force Texas taxpayers to fund thousands of elective abortions costing millions of dollars each year," he said.

Fifteen states, including California, Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey, allow Medicaid funds to be used to pay for abortions. The case before Texas' highest civil court was first struck down by a Travis County trial court, but that decision was reversed in December by the state's 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin. The reversal came on a 2-1 vote with two Democratic judges siding against one Republican.

All eight justices on the Supreme Court are Republicans, although one seat remains vacant. The high court is not expected to reach a decision for several weeks.

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