WASHINGTON (BP, RNS, TAB) — The Supreme Court delivered its most significant ruling on abortion in a generation today, striking down restrictions on Texas clinics and doctors that threatened to make the procedure more difficult for women to access.
In a 5–3 opinion, the high court ruled portions of a Texas law that regulate abortion doctors and clinics constitute an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to abort her child and are therefore unconstitutional. The high court’s reversal of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans invalidated a requirement an abortion clinic must meet the health and safety standards of other walk-in surgical centers. It also nullified a section mandating an abortion doctor must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital in case a woman needs emergency admission.
The ruling could have an impact beyond the Lone Star State by prompting legislatures and courts to reconsider other limits on abortion.
It has already had an impact on Alabama. Attorney General Luther Strange said following the decision, “While I disagree with the high court’s decision, there is no good faith argument that Alabama’s law remains constitutional in light of the Supreme Court ruling. Accordingly, my office will dismiss our appeal of a 2014 federal court ruling declaring Alabama’s abortion clinic law unconstitutional.”
The state of Texas had argued that the restrictions were necessary to protect women’s health. Abortion rights advocates said that by adding delays and distance to the obstacles women face, the medical risks would only rise.
Justice Stephen Breyer said in the majority opinion “that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes. Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a pre-viability abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access … and each violates the federal Constitution.”
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley expressed his disappointment as a physician to the ruling: “As a physician, I am concerned about the medical condition of all women, especially when a woman is facing a serious health procedure. In this Texas case, the Supreme Court is making a medical ruling without any sound medical expertise.”
Breyer was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the opinion “essentially leaves the abortion industry unregulated in a kind of Wild West, laissez faire sort of situation … that we wouldn’t allow for any other industry. Keeping abortion providers accountable should not be a political wedge issue.”
The case was among the most controversial to reach the court this term. More than 1,000 demonstrators, mostly women, protested outside the court when the case was heard in early March.
The last major case involving abortion was decided in 2007, when the justices upheld a federal law banning late-term — so-called “partial birth” — abortions. Kennedy wrote the 5–4 opinion, famously asserting that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.”