In the latest in a string of major decisions this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday morning to strike down a Louisiana law that would have drastically reduced the number of abortion providers in that state.
The court voted 5-4 to overrule the state law, with conservative Chief Justice Roberts joining the court’s four more liberal justices, as he did in recent landmark decisions on LGBT employment discrimination and the future of the DACA program.
Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh voted against striking down the law, acting in step with the wishes of President Trump who appointed the two conservative jurists in an effort to tilt the balance of the court rightward toward the ultimate goal of outlawing abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade.
The case from Monday’s decision, June Medical Services v. Russo, was heard by the Supreme Court four years after they struck down a nearly identical Texas law passed in 2013 in the 2016 case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. The two laws in question required doctors who perform abortions to have received permission to admit patients to local hospitals
Advocates for these laws claimed the admitting privileges requirement was in the interest of the health of those seeking abortions, but critics decried the laws as being designed to intentionally raise barriers to abortion access. By some estimates, Louisiana may have been left with only a single abortion provider if the law at the heart of Monday’s decision had been upheld.
In the Whole Woman’s Health decision in 2016, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that lawyers working on behalf of the state of Texas couldn’t provide any proof that “the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment,” and that the law placed an undue burden on women seeking an abortion in the state. Breyer revisited that same rationale in his majority opinion for Monday’s case.
“This case is similar to, nearly identical with, Whole Woman’s Health. And the law must consequently reach a similar conclusion,” wrote Breyer in Monday’s ruling.
Chief Justice Roberts, who voted in favor of upholding the Texas abortion restrictions at the center of the Whole Woman’s Health case in 2016, argued that while he still thought that case had been incorrectly decided, he considered the Louisiana law so similar to the Texas law that was struck down that a precedent had been set he did not feel comfortable overturning.
“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” said Roberts, who did not join the court’s four liberal justices in their majority opinion despite voting in step with them.
Abortion rights advocates in Houston were relieved by Monday’s decision. “We are grateful that the Supreme Court stepped in yet again to block another extremist anti-abortion law,” said Melaney Linton, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.
“The intent behind Louisiana’s unconstitutional legislation is nothing new: to decimate abortion access and keep essential health care out-of-reach for those who need it most,” Linton continued. “The people of Texas are all too familiar with the tragic consequences of these deceptive and medically unnecessary restrictions, as we saw seven years ago when nearly half of the state’s abortion providers were forced to close before the Court stepped in to protect access with Whole Woman’s Health in 2016.”
Bridget Schilling, a board member of the Clinic Access Support Network, a Houston non-profit that provides people seeking abortions with free rides to providers, medical appointments and related court hearings, said that their group is excited about the decision “because it means that Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt is less vulnerable,” but that their happiness is measured due to the Chief Justice’s stated rationale for his vote.
“Roberts only joined the majority decision because of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and that by no means means that he’s suddenly pro-abortion,” Schilling said. She explained that while Monday’s decision was a step in the right direction, pro-choice advocates like CASN aren’t holding their breath that it means the Supreme Court as currently constructed can be counted on to uphold abortion rights across the board.
“In terms of this Louisiana decision, I think Texas advocates probably had a big collective exhale,” said Schilling. “I see this as a relief rather than something that’s promising.”
Anti-choice activists in Texas decried Monday’s decision. “The Supreme Court should have upheld this commonsense law,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement. “ Instead, in striking down these basic health-and-safety regulations, the Supreme Court has allowed abortion clinics to endanger women.”
Texas Alliance for Life Executive Director Joe Pojman expressed disappointment, but made sure to declare it wasn’t a major setback for the pro-life movement since it only upheld the Supreme Court’s previous ruling in the Whole Woman’s Health case. In a prepared statement, Pojman said that while the impact of Monday’s ruling “is not lost on us,” their end goal remains clear.
“The Supreme Court’s unjust Roe v. Wade precedent must be reconsidered from an unbiased perspective,” he said.