U.S. Supreme Court takes on high-stakes abortion case

By: and - October 4, 2019 12:18 pm

Pro-life and pro-choice protesters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2, 2016, to demonstrate. The court that day heard oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a case centering on restrictions placed on abortion clinics in Texas. Photo by Jordan Uhl | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a high-profile case that could have major implications for abortion rights in states across the country, including Arizona. 

The justices announced that they will hear an appeal in a case over a Louisiana law that requires any physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, which critics warn would severely hamper access to those services. 

The high court previously struck down a similar law in Texas, but the court’s stance on the issue may shift in the wake of the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sided with the court’s liberal wing in the Texas case. Kennedy was replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who previously voted against an effort to temporarily block the Louisiana law. 

Arizona has a similar law on the books that was rendered unenforceable after the 2016 ruling in the Texas case. But if the court overturns that precedent, abortion advocates here say it would go back into effect and limit options for reproductive rights and health care for Arizona women.

Such a ruling could also undermine a lawsuit that Planned Parenthood Arizona filed last April challenging three Arizona laws restricting abortion access. That case won’t be considered by a federal court in Phoenix until 2020.

Tayler Tucker, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Arizona, said this case is a critical moment for reproductive rights, both nationwide and in Arizona. Locally, she said rural residents would be the hardest hit if the Supreme Court upholds the Louisiana law.

“Access would be really reduced for people won aren’t in Maricopa County. Anything outside of Maricopa County would be in danger,” she said.

Opponents challenging the Louisiana law have argued that it would have “disastrous consequences” for women in Louisiana, and would leave only one physician providing abortions in the entire state. That can’t possibly meet the needs of the roughly 10,000 women who seek abortion services in Louisiana each year, they told the Supreme Court. 

The state law, critics warn, is unconstitutional because it offers no benefits to women’s health that could justify the burdens on abortion access. 

In February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to temporarily block the law from taking effect. Four conservative justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh – said they would have denied the request to stay the law. 

In a dissent, Kavanaugh wrote that he would have allowed the law to take effect because the appeals court had said “the new law would not affect the availability of abortions from … the four doctors who currently perform abortions at Louisiana’s three abortion clinics.”

NPR reported at the time, “Kavanaugh’s dissent deferred to the precedent of the case in which the restrictive Texas law was overturned in 2016. But dissent signals Kavanaugh’s openness to state restrictions on abortion rights with limitations and without overturning Roe v. Wade outright.”

Kennedy was the swing vote on a host of contentious issues, including on the 2016 decision in the case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which rejected a Texas abortion law, finding it overly burdensome. The Louisiana law now in question is nearly identical to the Texas law that was struck down by the high court when Kennedy was on the bench. 

A federal appeals court upheld Louisiana’s law despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Texas case. 

The justices will hear oral arguments in the Louisiana case – June Medical Services LLC v. Gee – in the coming months and will issue an opinion before their term concludes in June 2020.

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.

Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.