Supreme Court’s abortion ruling
Jennifer Haberkorn of Politico reports that the Supreme Court on Monday gave the abortion rights movement its biggest legal victory in a generation, striking down a restrictive Texas law and erecting a legal firewall that could overturn similar state limits on abortion and curtail new ones.
The court’s 5-3 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt blocked parts of a Texas anti-abortion law from taking effect. The finding that such restrictions impose an “undue burden” on women’s constitutional right to abortion is expected to dissuade even more states from passing similar restrictions and to arm abortion rights supporters in legal challenges to restrictive state laws already on the books in many states (Politico).
The ruling is likely to make abortion — and the fight over who will succeed the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court — even more salient in the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (Politico).
Abortion rights advocates say these restrictions have shut down dozens of clinics, making it difficult for women to access abortion in large swaths of the country. Other clinics would have faced closure if the provisions in the Texas case — which require clinics to meet ambulatory-surgical-center building standards and require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — had been upheld (Politico).
The ruling marked the first time in 15 years that the court weighed in on state restrictions on abortion providers and facilities — a central strategy of the anti-abortion movement since 2010. The ruling’s scope will be tested almost immediately in lawsuits already filed over laws that have threatened to close clinics in Wisconsin, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Oklahoma (Politico).
In the Texas case, Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the court’s liberal justices in finding that the state had placed unconstitutional burdens on women seeking abortions. Texas argued that the ambulatory surgical and admitting privileges requirements were designed to make abortion safer, a claim that the court rejected (Politico).
“We conclude that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. “Each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access and each violates the Federal Constitution” (Politico).
Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissent quoting the late Scalia, chided the decision as another in 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’” (Politico).
The decision’s political ramifications are significant. It will galvanize both sides of the divisive abortion debate as the presidential campaign builds toward the national party conventions, and intensify the political focus on the Supreme Court’s vacancy, which has been frozen in the Senate. The Whole Women’s Health decision is sure to be cited as the two sides in the debate remind voters that the next president will almost certainly name several justices to the bench, providing a rare opportunity to cement the court’s political stance for years to come (Politico).
“Today’s decision is a reminder of how much is at stake in this election,” Clinton said in a statement shortly after the ruling. “We need a President who will defend women’s health and rights and appoint Supreme Court justices who recognize Roe v. Wade as settled law. We must continue to protect access to safe and legal abortion — not just on paper, but in reality” (Politico).
Opponents of abortion will likely use the decision to push Trump’s candidacy. He has pledged to appoint “pro-life” justices who could undo the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, let alone the Whole Woman’s Health decision. Indeed, some Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump are backing him because they expect him to put anti-abortion conservatives on the court. Anti-abortion forces also back other state restrictions, which are not at issue in the Texas case but could end up at the Supreme Court in the future (Politico).
“The next president will be tasked with selecting Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement and up to three others,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, which opposes abortion. “Only with a pro-life Congress and White House can we begin to address the havoc wrought by the Supreme Court on America’s unborn children and their mothers” (Politico).
Some 14 states have passed either a Texas-style admitting privilege requirement or a mandate that a similar agreement with a hospital be in place, according to statistics compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. About 22 states have ambulatory surgical center requirements. Lower courts have struck several of them or placed them on hold (Politico).
Those state laws will not be struck immediately. But they are likely to face strong legal challenges, either in cases that have been filed or new ones. The Whole Woman’s Health decision will not only bolster abortion rights supporters on Texas-style restrictions, but could also support legal challenges to other state-level restrictions, such as waiting periods or bans on certain abortion procedures (Politico).
In that way, the decision could realign the tectonic plates underpinning the national abortion debate.
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