To the surprise of many, the Supreme Court today blocked a law in Louisiana that would have made it nearly impossible to get an abortion in the state. The law would have left only one clinic and one doctor able to perform abortions.
Instead, the law was blocked in a 5-4 decision that found Justice John Roberts taking an unlikely stance by siding with the liberals on the court.
The law, enacted in 2014, requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. In 2017, Judge John W. deGravelles of the Federal District Court in Baton Rouge struck down the law, saying that such doctors were often unable to obtain admitting privileges for reasons unrelated to their competence and that the law created an undue burden on women’s constitutional right to abortion.
A similar law in Texas was overturned in 2016 when the the Supreme Court determined in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that the law did not benefit women but instead placed undue burden on women seeking abortions. There was no evidence that the law, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in his ruling, “would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment.” Meanwhile, the law halved the number of abortion clinics in Texas, from 40 to 20.
Judge deGravelles ruling in Louisiana was eventually overturned by a three-judge Court of Appeals panel. These judges said that the law did provide “minimal benefit,” to women, and blamed abortion doctors for not trying hard enough to qualify for hospital admitting privileges that would allow them to perform abortions under the law. The dissenting opinion from the panel said there was no difference between the Louisiana case and the the case in Texas.
“I fail to see,” Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham wrote, “how a statute with no medical benefit that is likely to restrict access to abortion can be considered anything but ‘undue.’”
After the full Fifth Circuit court panel refused to hear the case, the Center for Reproductive Rights wrote an emergency application for the Supreme Court to block the law while the case was appealed.
“Louisiana is poised to deny women their constitutional right to access safe and legal abortion with an admitting-privileges requirement that every judge in the proceedings below — the District Court, the panel majority and the dissenters — agrees is medically unnecessary,” the challengers wrote in their application in the case, June Medical Services v. Gee, No. 18A774.
“One doctor at one clinic cannot possibly meet the needs of approximately 10,000 women who seek abortion services in Louisiana each year,” they wrote. “Some of these women will attempt self-managed abortions, seek out unlicensed or unsafe abortions or be compelled to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.”
They won—the Supreme Court has now blocked the law while the appeals process continues.
This doesn’t mean the law won’t eventually be upheld, even by the same Supreme Court. But at the very least it is a reprieve from the consequences of all but outlawing abortion in the state of Louisiana while the fight for reproductive justice continues.