AUSTIN, Texas — Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Sunday invoked comedian Joan Rivers' death at a surgical clinic while defending a law he signed that would close the majority of abortion facilities in the nation's second-most populous state.
The potential 2016 presidential candidate said the law made Texas safer, even though a federal judge in August blocked a key provision that requires abortion clinics to meet hospital-level operating standards. Had that requirement taken effect, only seven abortion facilities would remain in Texas — down from more than 40 in 2012.
Rivers was undergoing a routine procedure at a New York outpatient surgery center when the 81-year-old entertainer went into cardiac arrest and died earlier this month. Health officials in New York are investigating.
"It was interesting that Joan Rivers and the procedure that she had done, where she died, that was a clinic," Perry said. "It's a curious thought, that if they had that type of regulations in place whether or not that individual would be still alive."
Abortion-rights supporters bristled at Perry's comparison.
"The reality is that complications happen in all areas of medicine. There's risk inherent in just about anything. You could have a heart attack and die while having your wisdom teeth removed. Should we outlaw wisdom teeth removal?" said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas in an email.
Perry was responding to a question from the audience during a wide-ranging interview at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin.
The event was a rare instance of Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, reflecting on 14 years of state policy, after spending the past year whipping up conservative crowds around the U.S. for another potential White House run. Rather than a fiery speech blasting President Barack Obama, an easygoing Perry mused on his record on schools and jobs.
Texas is now asking a federal appeals court in New Orleans to let the state fully enforce its sweeping anti-abortion law, known as HB2. That same appeals court previously upheld a section of the law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin ruled last month that making Texas abortion clinics spend millions of dollars on hospital-level upgrades was less about safety than making access to abortion difficult.
Opponents of the law repeatedly extolled the safety of abortion clinics during a four-day trial in Austin, arguing that that only one of more than 500 deaths from pregnancy-related causes from 2008-2012 in Texas was attributed to abortion.
Jan Soifer, an Austin attorney representing abortion providers in the lawsuit, said in an email Sunday she didn't know the circumstances of Rivers' death, or if Perry knew whether that clinic would have met Texas' proposed ambulatory surgical center requirements.
"I do know that the evidence we produced at trial proved that abortions are among the safest procedures and neither ASCs nor admitting privileges make them any safer," Soifer said.
Perry reiterated during the event that he wouldn't announce a decision on whether he'll run for president again until after leaving office in January.
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