The Supreme Court delivered a blow to the anti-abortion movement on Monday, striking down a Louisiana law that could have left only one abortion provider in the state.
The court ruled 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the court’s liberal justices. The case was the court’s first major abortion case since President Donald Trump appointed two conservative justices, shifting the court to the right.
June Medical Services v. Russo concerned a Louisiana law that required doctors providing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
The court struck down a virtually identical Texas law in 2016.
“Enforcing the admitting-privileges requirement would drastically reduce the number and geographic distribution of abortion providers, making it impossible for many women to obtain a safe, legal abortion in the State and imposing substantial obstacles on those who could,” wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The chief justice, who wrote a concurring opinion separately from his four more liberal colleagues, said he joined the majority in June Medical out of respect for precedent.
“The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons,” he wrote. “Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.” Roberts dissented in the Texas case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which was decided in 2016.
He continues “to believe that the case was wrongly decided,” Roberts wrote. But “the question today however is not whether Whole Woman’s Health was right or wrong, but whether to adhere to it in deciding the present case.”
The ruling is a narrow win for abortion rights groups, which argue that the Louisiana law and others like it are not medically necessary and are intended to close clinics, not protect women’s health.
In a statement, Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represented the clinic challenging the Louisiana law, celebrated the victory but cautioned that the fight is far from over.
“We’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today but we’re concerned about tomorrow,” Northup said. “With this win, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state. But the Court’s decision could embolden states to pass even more restrictive laws when clarity is needed if abortion rights are to be protected.”
Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University and historian of abortion law, said that it would be a mistake to read Monday’s opinion and think that abortion rights are significantly safer today than they were yesterday.
“I think it is pretty clear that Roberts is willing to uphold restrictions if they are presented with the right kind of case, particularly a case that will allow him to save face when it comes to respect for precedent,” Ziegler said. “I think the single biggest takeaway for abortion opponents is that appearances matter to John Roberts. Even if he is not a believer in abortion rights, he is a believer in optics and in institutional legitimacy.”
Opponents of the Louisiana law, which was enacted in 2014, said that restricting which doctors may perform abortions is not only medically unnecessary, it puts an undue burden on women’s right to access the procedure.
Many abortion providers cannot easily obtain hospital admitting privileges, doctors have explained, because of the excessive paperwork required and because of resistance from hospitals that don’t want to appear as though they’re taking sides on the issue. Some hospitals also set up impossible-to-meet benchmarks for granting the admitting privileges, such as doctors having to admit a minimum number of patients each year in order to keep the privileges.
A 2018 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that 95% of women who have abortions in the U.S. receive them in clinics or offices, and that such facilities were perfectly equipped to handle such a procedure.
The law’s supporters relied on arguments that abortion is a dangerous, high-risk procedure, even though the procedure has a lower rate of hospitalizations than a wisdom tooth removal.
Dr. Bhavik Kumar, a family medicine physician in Texas and the medical director for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which operates two clinics in Louisiana, told HuffPost last year that forcing women to leave the state for an abortion would only increase the risk of complications.
“We know from rigorous studies that barriers to access abortion care in a timely manner create harm, rather than actually increasing the safety profile,” Kumar said of the Louisiana law. “When laws that are masked as promoting the health and safety of our patients are actually harming them, that’s when I think a lot of us become concerned.”
Several states have sought to pass anti-abortion laws during the Trump era. Like many of those measures, the Louisiana one was justified as based on concerns for the health of women rather than moral objections to abortions. But the effect is to further the goals of those opposing abortion rights, said Michelle Erenberg, the executive director of Lift Louisiana, an organization focused on women’s health in that state.
“I think it was actually a pretty clever move on their part,” she told HuffPost last year of those who pushed for the law. “It’s easier for people to see these regulations as reasonable and not as just an effort to prohibit abortion or shut down abortion clinics, even though we all know that that is their impact.”
Melissa Jeltsen contributed to this report.