The Supreme Court struck down a Texas law Monday 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 applying new restrictions on abortion clinics.
The 5-3 ruling capped the court’s term that began last October, and marked the justices’ latest boundary setting for legislators who try to impose abortion-related restrictions.
“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 Monday. “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 in the decision.
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.
With a 5-3 ruling, 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.
One of the most closely watched cases of the Supreme Court’s term, the dispute divided states and reignited passions on all sides of the abortion issue. While California, Washington and a dozen other states sided with Whole Woman’s Health, more than 20 states – including Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas and South Carolina – supported Texas.
All the states will be guided in their future abortion-policy decisions by the court’s decision, and some of the 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,” while President Barack 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.
Whole Woman’s Health, the organization whose name led the legal challenge, operates abortion-providing clinics. On the other side of the Supreme Court case — formally known as Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt — was Dr. John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Hellerstedt’s agency administers the requirements imposed by Texas legislators through what was called House Bill 2. 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.
A separate challenged provision requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles.
“The Texas Legislature passed HB2 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 Texas 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.
The court’s majority further noted Monday that “the great weight of evidence” demonstrated that abortion in Texas was “extremely safe” even before passage of the state law, with particularly low rates of serious complications and virtually no women dying on account of the procedure.
“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.
Tulane University Law School professor Stephen M. Griffin predicted that “as a practical matter,” Monday’s 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 states including Mississippi are still pending.
The legal challenges, like the decision 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.
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.
President Barack 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. Senate Republicans so far have refused to hold a hearing on Garland’s nomination, with conservative activists warning that Garland would tilt the court toward the left if he were confirmed.