Protesters at the Supreme Court in March 2020, when the justices were hearing arguments in June Medical Services LLC v. Russo. (Photo: States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — In a major victory for reproductive rights, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a controversial Louisiana law that critics said would have severely limited access to abortion in Louisiana and opened the door to further abortion limitations around the country.
Enacted in 2014 by the Louisiana state Legislature, the law would have required physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
A district court overturned the law in 2017 on the grounds that it offers no benefits to women’s health that justify the burdens it places on abortion access, but a federal appellate court reversed the decision in 2018.
On Monday, the high court sided with the lower district court, ruling that its findings and underlying evidence support its conclusion that the law would “drastically reduce” access to abortion and make it impossible for many women to obtain a safe, legal abortion in the state.
The court also noted that the law is “nearly identical” to a similar Texas law that the court struck down in 2016. In that case — Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (WWH) — the court found that the law posed an undue burden on access to abortion.
The decision comes on the heels of two recent rulings in which the conservative-tilting court’s four liberal justices won the day. Earlier this month, a majority of the court backed LGBTQ workplace rights and blocked a Trump administration program that threatened young, unauthorized immigrants known as “Dreamers” with deportation.
Writing for the majority in June Medical Services v. Russo, Justice Stephen Breyer said the district court’s findings “mirror” the Whole Woman’s Health case “in every relevant respect and require the same result.” Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a concurring opinion, citing the legal doctrine of stare decisis — the principle that obligates courts to follow previous rulings in similar cases.
Roberts joined the court’s conservative wing in its 2016 dissent in Whole Woman’s Health, arguing that the Texas law should have been upheld. In joining the court’s liberals Monday, he wrote that the question “is not whether Whole Woman’s Health was right or wrong, but whether to adhere to it in deciding the present case.”
Stare decisis, he said, requires justices to “treat like cases alike,” he continued. “The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.”
Conservative justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh filed dissenting opinions in the case.
It was the third time this month Roberts sided with the liberals, first in a ruling protecting LGBTQ people from job discrimination, and then rejecting the Trump administration’s attempt to scrap the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
Nevada abortion rights advocates applauded Monday’s decision.
“Many of us were ready for a bad decision on this case that would have resulted in the right-wing extremists’ wish of decimating abortion in our country come true,” said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress. “If the Supreme Court would have allowed this clinic shutdown law to go into effect, it would have severely restricted abortion access in Louisiana and set precedent for how abortion access is handled in states across the country. Admitting privileges has nothing to do with patient health or safety. It does not make any patient safer. It’s another deceptive ploy by anti-abortion politicians whose goal is to eliminate access to abortion care.”
“Today’s ruling is a win, but until all people can obtain the care they need, the constitutional right to abortion exists in name only,” said Macy Haverda, co-director of the Nevada ACLU. “Those in rural communities, those without the financial resources, those unable to take the time off work, and those unable to secure adequate childcare still face barriers to access. We have a long way to go to ensure that abortion care is truly accessible for all Nevadans.”
In 2017, 89 percent of U.S. counties had no clinics providing abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice think tank.
House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana called the decision “a major step backwards” and vowed to keep fighting. “Today’s decision reminds us how much work we still have to do in our efforts to protect the unborn and defend the sanctity of life. We will not back down or relent,” he said.
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