Reproductive rights groups on Monday expressed relief after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an extreme anti-choice law in Louisiana—but said they were prepared for a continued fight to protect reproductive healthcare across the country.
In a 5-4 decision in June Medical Services vs. Russo, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the high court's four liberal-leaning justices in ruling against a 2014 Louisiana law which stated doctors who provide abortion care in the state must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The restriction was one of several Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws passed by states in recent years designed to shut down clinics.
"That this law was only struck down by a 5-4 vote shows just how precarious access to abortion is in our country, where politicians continue to pass laws designed to shut down clinics and push abortion out of reach."
—Jennifer Dalven, ACLU
In 2016, the Supreme Court rejected a similar law that had passed in Texas. Writing the opinion for the four liberal-leaning judges, Justice Stephen Breyer ruled that like the Texas law, the restriction placed an "undue burden" on patients seeking abortion care, in violation of the 1992 Casey vs. Planned Parenthood decision.
The law "poses a 'substantial obstacle' to women seeking an abortion" and "offers no significant health-related benefits," Breyer wrote, agreeing with a lower court's ruling.
As such, the Republican-led Louisiana legislature imposed an "undue burden on a woman's constitutional right to choose to have an abortion," he added.
"Today we can rest easy knowing abortion access is still intact" in Louisiana, tweeted the National Women's Law Center.
BREAKING: #SCOTUS rules that abortion clinics in Louisiana stay open and upholds its decision from four years ago in Whole Women’s Health – today we can rest easy knowing abortion access is still intact #MyRightMyDecision pic.twitter.com/EaDny9uu1I
— National Women's Law Center (@nwlc) June 29, 2020
The doctors who filed a lawsuit over the legislation argued that the restriction would leave patients in Louisiana with only one eligible provider at one clinic where they could obtain care. About 10,000 women seek abortion care each year in the state.
Louisiana lawmakers have passed 89 abortion restrictions since Roe vs. Wade affirmed women's right to obtain abortion care, and there are currently only three clinics operating in the state.
The state law was struck down despite President Donald Trump's appointing of two right-wing, anti-choice judges to the court since he took office in 2017. The decision is the third ruling in less than two weeks that has been considered a legal defeat for the Trump administration.
Advocates pointed to Justice Brett Kavanaugh's support for the Louisiana restriction as new evidence that federal lawmakers who supported his confirmation, arguing that reproductive rights are secure in the U.S., must be voted out of office.
Lost in the abortion ruling... @SenatorCollins said that Brett Kavanaugh would "follow precedent" when it came to abortion rights, but today JOHN ROBERTS followed precedent, explicitly so, and Kavanaugh DID NOT.
Never forget that Susan Collins lied to you about Kavanaugh.
— Elie Mystal (@ElieNYC) June 29, 2020
"In this moment of turmoil for our country, fighting for the fundamental rights of every body is more important than ever," said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "We will fight with everything we have to make sure the politicians like Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who rubber-stamped Trump and Mitch McConnell's efforts to stack our courts with radical right ideologues, are held accountable for putting our freedom at risk. Anti-choice politicians be warned: The 77% of Americans who support the legal right to abortion care won't forget what you did—and you'll be answering to us this November."
The fact that four of the nation's top justices ruled in favor of stripping Louisiana women of their right to abortion care—and that other state-level laws could be decided by the court in the coming months—was not lost on Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
"The court's ruling today will not stop those hell-bent on banning abortion," Northup said in a statement. "We will be back in court tomorrow and will continue to fight state by state, law by law to protect our constitutional right to abortion. But we shouldn't have to keep playing whack-a-mole. It's time for Congress to pass The Women's Health Protection Act, a federal bill that would ensure the promise of Roe v. Wade is realized in every state for every person."
BREAKING: The Supreme Court just struck down Louisiana’s clinic shutdown law. This ruling allows the state’s three clinics to remain open to continue to provide abortion care for the people of Louisiana. #MyRightMyDecision pic.twitter.com/76ahQ5sjXS
— Center for Reproductive Rights (@ReproRights) June 29, 2020
However, it does little to stop the relentless attacks on abortion rights. Politicians no doubt will exploit today's fractured decision to pass even more anti-abortion laws that undermine people's rights and access to care. #MyRightMyDecision
— Center for Reproductive Rights (@ReproRights) June 29, 2020
"Just four years ago, the court held that there was no medical justification for this law, and yet today we were just one vote away from it taking effect and eviscerating access to abortion," said Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "That this law was only struck down by a 5-4 vote shows just how precarious access to abortion is in our country, where politicians continue to pass laws designed to shut down clinics and push abortion out of reach."
Constitutional law expert Leah Litman noted that Roberts' reasoning for joining Justices Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in rejecting the law did not inspire confidence about the security of abortion rights. The chief justice said in a separate opinion that he only voted with the liberal judges because he believed the court's 2016 decision regarding the Texas law should be upheld—but that he had dissented in the 2016 ruling.
"It is NOT at all encouraging for the future of abortion rights given the narrowness of the Chief Justice's concurrence: 'I am voting this way only because SCOTUS struck down this exact same law 4 years ago,'" Litman wrote.
The advocacy group Demand Justice tweeted its agreement.
Hogue noted, however, that the ruling "shows that advocates can make a difference."
"Support for Roe v. Wade is at an all-time high in this country and so many made their voices heard through this process," she said. "The court's legitimacy in the eyes of the public will be threatened if they follow through on Trump's promise to end legal abortion."