The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Texas law that was blamed for the closing of 3 out of 4 abortion clinics in the state.
The decision sends a warning shot to other conservative states, as well, that cite medical safety issues in adding restrictions on abortion clinics.
The 5-3 ruling capped the court term that began last October, and it marks the justices’ latest boundaries for legislators who try to impose abortion-related restrictions.
But while it does set new parameters, the ruling doesn’t directly affect the laws of North Carolina, which updated its standards for abortion clinics last year.
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“Neither of these (challenged) provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion. “Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking ... abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access and each violates the federal Constitution.”
Breyer was joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Republican appointee, and liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. joined Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in dissent. “That decision exemplifies the court’s troubling tendency to bend the rules when any effort to limit abortion, or even to speak in opposition to abortion, is at issue,” Thomas wrote.
One of the most closely watched cases of the court’s term, the dispute divided states and reignited passions on all sides of the abortion issue. California, Washington and a dozen other states sided with Whole Woman’s Health, an organization that provides abortion services and whose name led the legal challenge. More than 20 states – including Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas and South Carolina – supported Texas.
All states will be guided in future abortion-policy decisions by the ruling, and some other states’ laws could quickly fall.
“Today’s ruling should send a clear message to legislators that measures aimed at curtailing a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion will not be tolerated,” American Constitution Society President Caroline Fredrickson said in a statement.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., praised the 40-page decision as a “significant victory for women’s reproductive rights,” and President Obama declared himself pleased.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott countered that “the decision erodes states’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost.”
“Common-sense requirements that abortion clinics be held to the same standards as other medical facilities put the health of the patient first,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
On the losing side of the case – formally known as Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt – was Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Hellerstedt’s agency administers requirements imposed by Texas legislators. One provision requires abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Standards range from a minimum square-footage requirement to rules covering plumbing, heating, lighting and ventilation.
Another challenged provision requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles.
“The Texas Legislature passed (the bill) to provide abortion patients with ‘the highest standard of health care,’ ” Texas Solicitor General Scott A. Keller asserted in the state’s brief.
Attorneys for Whole Woman’s Health countered that the law imposed an undue burden because it “would close more than 75 percent of Texas abortion facilities and deter new ones from opening.” Before 2013, more than 40 licensed abortion clinics operated in Texas. Now there are fewer than 10.
“Those closures meant fewer doctors, longer waiting times and increased crowding,” Breyer wrote.
In North Carolina
Unlike Texas, North Carolina doesn’t require that clinics comply with regulations as strict as those at ambulatory surgical centers. Also, North Carolina requires doctors to apply for admitting privileges at a local hospital but does not require that they be obtained.
North Carolina’s legislature fought over clinic regulations in 2013. Abortion opponents argued for provisions like those in Texas, saying women’s safety was at stake. Advocates for abortion rights said the proposals were intended to shutter clinics.
After public input, the McCrory administration came up with new regulations, which were adopted last September and took effect in October. Abortion opponents complained that their viewpoint wasn’t adequately represented in the process.
A North Carolina law passed last year requires that doctors send to state health regulators ultrasound images of women seeking abortions. It also requires that abortion clinics be inspected annually, establishes a 72-hour waiting period, and requires that doctors provide data to state regulators about second-trimester abortions they perform. A previous state law requiring that ultrasound images be described to patients was ruled unconstitutional.
The ruling prompted reaction from both sides of the abortion issue in North Carolina.
“The Court’s ruling today sacrifices the safety of women and their unborn babies for the abortion industry’s greed by allowing abortion businesses to continue their treacherous practices of operating by sub-standard medical practices,” N.C. Values Coalition executive director Tami Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Requiring hospital admitting privileges for abortion doctors and requiring that abortion clinics meet the same standards as other ambulatory surgical centers is both reasonable and necessary to protect women’s health, but the Supreme Court is setting up a lower standard of care for these clinics just because they perform abortions.”
Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said, “We applaud the U.S. Supreme Court for their decision affirming women’s access to safe, legal abortion. Yet as we celebrate today’s victory, it does not undo the past five years of damage and restrictions already passed into law in our own state by anti-abortion politicians. ...
“A woman’s right to make decisions about her health, family and future should never be dependent on her ZIP code.”
The Supreme Court’s majority noted Monday that “the great weight of evidence” demonstrated that abortion in Texas was “extremely safe” even before passage of the state law.
“Thus, there was no significant health-related problem that the new law helped to cure,” Breyer wrote.
About 60,000 to 72,000 legal abortions are performed annually in Texas.
The ACLU of North Carolina was “still reviewing the ruling and its impact on states beyond Texas, including here in North Carolina,” said Mike Meno, its communications director.
But Tulane University Law School professor Stephen M. Griffin predicted that “as a practical matter,” the ruling “means most of the new laws state legislatures have enacted recently to restrict abortion rights will be struck down.”
Sometimes called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws, these restrictions in myriad states have ranged from requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges to setting clinic structural standards. Legal challenges to laws in other states, including Mississippi, are pending.
Those legal challenges, like the challenge in the ruling Monday, are guided by a 1992 Supreme Court decision arising from Pennsylvania. In that case, the court ruled that states may regulate abortion but may not impose “unnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion.” This is called the “undue burden” test.
Kennedy and the conservative Thomas are the only justices still serving who took part in that Pennsylvania case.
Since the court ruled 5-3 Monday, the addition of the late Justice Antonin Scalia would have made no difference to the outcome. Nor would the addition of an Obama appointee to replace him.
Scalia’s absence had been felt in earlier court decisions involving mandatory union fees and religious exceptions to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. At the current political pace, his vacant seat will not be filled by the time the court’s next term starts in October.
Obama nominated Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, on March 16 to replace Scalia. But Senate Republicans have refused to hold a hearing on Garland’s nomination, with conservative activists warning that Garland would tilt the court toward the left.
News & Observer staff writers Craig Jarvis and Eric Frederick contributed to this report.