In a major victory for abortion rights, the Supreme Court voted 5-3 on Monday to strike down a Texas law that placed major restrictions on women's access to abortion in the state. The ruling protects women's legal right to abortion in Texas but also sets a national precedent against laws effectively intended to shut down abortion clinics.
The ruling in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt is the Court's most important decision on abortion in nearly a decade. Its rejection of the Texas law could have a major impact on restrictive abortion laws around the country, making it harder for states like Mississippi, Oklahoma and Alabama to pass or uphold laws and regulations that wind up forcing abortion clinics to close.
The bill the Court struck down, Texas' House Bill 2, was passed in 2013. It involved a slew of restrictive measures. Among them: requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital; ordering that clinics be re-designed to operate as "ambulatory surgical centers"; and demanding that clinics provide 24-hour phone assistance to patients.
The Court considered whether the law places an "undue burden" on women trying to access abortion care. The "undue burden" standard was established in another Supreme Court case, Planned Parenthood v Casey, in 1992.
Women's healthcare providers, including Whole Woman's Health and Planned Parenthood in Texas have argued that the HB 2 was in effect a Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) Law, intended by pro-life politicians to erode women's access to legal abortions by effectively shutting down abortion clinics. The state argued that the measures were not an "undue burden," but that they were instead aimed at protecting women's health.
The Court sided with the clinics.
"We conclude that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. "Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access."
Since the law was passed in Texas, 22 abortion clinics in the state have been forced to shut down. If the law had been upheld, providers worried that more clinics would be forced to close, leaving women in the entire state with as few as nine clinics, all located in major cities. That would particularly affect women of color and low-income women, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Providers' opposition to HB 2 was backed by a range of professional medical groups, business groups, veterans and faith leaders who submitted amicus briefs to the court expressing their views that the law was a step backwards for women's rights and healthcare in America. Medical groups including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have said that these restrictions are not based on scientific evidence. In addition, several studies have found that abortion is already an extremely safe procedure.
“The bills are not based on sound science, despite our efforts to provide the legislature with the best available medical knowledge," said ACOG Texas District Chair Lisa M. Hollier, MD, MPH, in a statement after the laws were passed in 2013. "The bills would erode women’s health by denying the women of Texas the benefits of well-researched, safe, and proven protocols."
The ruling could have significant implications for abortion restrictions around the country.
Nationally, state legislatures have been introducing and passing restrictive abortion laws at a particularly rapid rate over the last five years. Since Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that first explicitly affirmed women's rights to abortion care, 1074 restrictive aborton laws have been passed: of those, 27% were passed in the last five years, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Last year, states passed 57 laws with the goal of limiting access to abortion, according to the institute. And just in January this year, 147 anti-abortion bills were introduced in legislatures around the country, Rewire reported.
While the Court's ruling doesn't automatically invalidate other restrictive abortion laws, it sets a precedent that could definitively strengthen challenges to those laws. It also explicitly rejects the justification that many states have used in passing pro-life laws: that in imposing restrictions, they're protecting women's health.