The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law that would have curtailed access to abortions in the state, and that was nearly identical to a measure the court overturned in Texas in 2016.
The ruling is a win for advocates of abortion access, who feared the case could pave the way for states to impose greater restrictions on the procedure. And it could have had far-reaching effects in Texas where there are more than 6 million reproductive age women. More than 53,800 abortions were performed in Texas in 2017, including 1,1,74 for out-of-state residents, according to government data. The GOP-controlled Legislature routinely introduces regulations restricting abortion access, and the state's Republican attorney general recently fought to enforce a near-total ban during the coronavirus outbreak.
Monday's decision was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the liberal justices to strike down the Louisiana law. He had dissented in the 2016 decision that found Texas’ restrictions placed an undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
The case is seen as a harbinger of how a reconstituted U.S. Supreme Court may rule on abortion issues going forward. Since the Texas case was decided in 2016, the Court’s ideological center has shifted to the right with the addition of Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — both appointed by President Donald Trump, who pledged to appoint pro-life justices who would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
At issue in Monday's decision is a Louisiana law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. It’s nearly identical to a Texas law the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2016 saying there was no proof the requirement better protected women’s health. At the same time, “sufficient evidence” showed the admitting-privileges requirement shut down about half the abortion clinics in the state — more than quadrupling the number of reproductive age women living more than 150 miles away from one.
While the requirement was in effect in Texas, the number of abortions performed in the state declined from around 63,000 in 2013 to 54,000 the next year, according to government data.
In neighboring Louisiana, where some 10,000 women seek abortions each year, one clinic and one doctor would be left to perform the procedure if the admitting privileges requirement went into effect, the law’s challengers said.
State officials say admitting-privileges are meant to protect women’s health and ensure doctors are qualified. But advocates of abortion access say it is medically unnecessary because the procedure rarely results in hospitalization. When complications do arise, they often occur after the woman has left the clinic, critics of the law say. Admitting privileges are denied for reasons unrelated to the doctors’ abilities; abortion providers, for example, can face difficulties qualifying for them because their patients are transferred to the hospital so infrequently, those critics said.
In the case decided Monday, lawyers challenging the Louisiana law argued it is a carbon copy of the Texas requirement, which was struck down for imposing an undue burden on women seeking abortions. The state’s lawyers said the facts in Louisiana are different, and that clinics and doctors lack the legal standing to challenge the law for their patients.
In the Texas cases, the admitting privileges requirement presented a “substantial obstacle in the path of woman’s choice,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the court’s majority opinion. The court found physicians who provide abortions can face difficulty getting admitting privileges because, in some cases, their patients are transferred to the hospital so infrequently. They also found no evidence that the mandate “helped even one woman obtain better treatment” in the state.
The Texas law, House Bill 2 in 2013, also required that abortion clinics meet hospital-like standards — including minimum sizes for rooms and doorways. Had the Court upheld that provision, Texas could have been left with as few as 10 abortion clinics, all in major metropolitan areas.