In a major victory for American women, the US supreme court sent a powerful message on Monday in its Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt decision: that laws purporting to protect women’s health while limiting access to abortion are an unconstitutional sham.
In a 5-3 decision, the court struck down a Texas law, called House Bill 2, responsible for shuttering more than half of the state’s clinics. The restrictions mandated that clinics become ambulatory surgical centers, adhering to wholly unnecessary hospital-like standards, and that doctors have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital even though hospitalization is almost never necessary after ending a pregnancy. The goal wasn’t to make abortion safer, of course, just impossible to obtain.
Ending a pregnancy is such a safe procedure that doctors would never be able to admit enough patients to a hospital in order to keep admitting privileges, and because abortions are so safe and common, maintaining the standards for a surgical center simply drained clinics of their resources. And anti-choice legislators know as much.
The court’s decision made clear the justices were not fooled, noting in the majority decision that “when directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”
And in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concurring opinion, she wrote it was “beyond rational belief that HB 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law ‘would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions.’”
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Lead plaintiff in the case, Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, released a statement saying that her clinics “treat our patients with compassion, respect and dignity – and today the supreme court did the same.”
She continued, “I want everyone to understand: you don’t mess with Texas, you don’t mess with Whole Woman’s Health and you don’t mess with this beautiful, powerful movement of people dedicated to reproductive health, rights, and justice.”
The ruling represents a significant loss for anti-abortion groups, who have been pushing Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (Trap laws) over the last decade: as of this year, 24 states have some sort of law or policy that restricts abortion access through targeting the way providers work.
But the Whole Woman’s Health decision – which laid bare the way that these mandates constitute an undue burden on women seeking abortion – stands to put that years-long strategy in jeopardy. It will be that much harder for anti-choice legislators to shroud their policies in rhetoric about protecting women when the highest court in the country has essentially called the tactic nonsense.
For pro-choicers, the decision isn’t just a win, but a sticking point in the upcoming presidential election. Pro-choice organizations wasted no time releasing statements that tied the decision to how a Donald Trump presidency would be disastrous for women. Ilyse Hogue, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, says that Trump “is committed to appointing justices who will once again make abortion illegal across the country”. Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, noted that “extremist Republicans like Donald Trump should take note... women are paying attention and you’ll be hearing our voices loud and clear come November.”
Before November comes, though, American women can do some much-deserved celebrating in the wake of Monday’s decision. A strategy that aimed to limit our rights while invoking our protection has been proven impotent. A law that put tens of thousands of us in danger has been overturned. It is, finally, a good day.