The lawyers, judges and demonstrators are getting ready. The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing the most important legal battle on abortion to be waged in decades during Wednesday’s session. At issue are the ever-rising numbers of state abortion restrictions that effectively limit opportunities for women to terminate a pregnancy without overcoming substantial hurdles.
The case being argued before the Supreme Court this week, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, springs from a 2013 Texas law that increased safety requirements for abortion clinics that are in line with other surgical clinics. The measure requires physicians to have admitting privileges at the local hospital. There is also a stipulation that hallways at any clinic be wide enough for hospital gurneys to pass through.
Those challenging the law say that it is actually an attempt to restrict abortion access by putting an undue burden on clinics. The added expense forced many clinics to close. For example, in 2011, there were 41 abortion clinics in Texas; now there are only about 10 for a state that is almost 800 miles long and about 660 miles wide with approximately 5.4 million women of childbearing age. The remaining clinics are in Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and McAllen. The result is that many women have to go to neighboring states or drive all day because of the closures.
Abortion rights groups and medical associations say the rules imposed do not serve public health and create a roadblock for women seeking abortions. They note that these are the types of burdens the high court’s landmark 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey sought to prohibit.
While the case before the court this week deals with Texas, there are several other states that have enacted similar legislation that is forcing abortion clinics to close. The court ruling could focus solely on the Texas situation or be broad enough to affect other states too. Many low-income women, even if they can afford an abortion, cannot pay for transportation, hotel rooms, child care or time off from work to travel hundreds of miles. Additionally, there are long waits for appointments in some areas, including a two- to four-week wait for a procedure in Dallas.
The death last month of Justice Antonin Scalia may play a big part in the case. If the remaining judges, the court’s four liberals and four conservatives split their votes on ideological lines, it would leave the law in place in Texas and force court battles to continue in several other states.
However, Justice Anthony Kennedy is a bit of a wild card who could impact the ruling. He has ruled against undue burdens before, including in an abortion case. In the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling, he joined the Justices that reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion. However, he has allowed other abortion restrictions to stand.
As a result, more than 100 supporting briefs for the abortion battle to be waged Wednesday have been filed with the Supreme Court that are specifically aimed at Kennedy, using language and concepts from his various rulings. They particularly cite his “equal dignity” phraseology in the same-sex marriage ruling last year.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
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New York Times: Eyes on Kennedy, Women Tell Supreme Court Why Abortion Was Right for Them
Media Matters: New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse Explains The Facts In “The Most Important Supreme Court Abortion Case In A Generation”
USA Today: Abortion was in Texas tests high court standard
U.S. Census Bureau
Photo by Daderot (public domain)