Supreme Court strikes down Texas abortion restrictions

Supreme Court strikes down Texas abortion restrictions
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Monday delivered a major win to abortion clinics in Texas in a decision that halts the state’s Republican leaders from enforcing one of the nation’s strictest abortion laws.

The court’s 5-3 decision, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, blocks Texas from enforcing two of the biggest pieces of its landmark 2013 law.

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The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, marks the court’s first major decision on abortion in about two decades. It’s also one of the most anticipated decisions of 2016, a year in which Justice Antonin Scalia’s death shrunk the bench to only eight justices.

The justices said in the majority opinion that the two parts of the Texas law under challenge create a “substantial obstacle in the path of women” who are seeking abortions and neither provision “offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes.”

The law required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. It also required abortion clinics to meet the stricter standards of hospital-style “ambulatory surgical centers.”

Breyer was joined on the 40-page majority opinion by Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy, who was considered the swing vote in the case.

The ruling tosses out a previous decision by an appellate court, which abortion rights activists warned would have sweeping implications for millions of women in Texas.

"Today women across the nation have had their constitutional rights vindicated. The Supreme Court sent a loud and clear message that politicians cannot use deceptive means to shut down abortion clinics,” the Center for Reproductive Rights, the group that filed the lawsuit, wrote in a statement.

If the ruling had been upheld, the number of abortion clinics in Texas would have shrunk to about 10 from more than 40 before the law, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Abortion rights activists sued Texas after its GOP-controlled legislature passed a strict law in 2013, arguing it violated a woman’s right to an abortion under federal law.

Several medical groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, called the restrictions unnecessary and politically motivated.

President Obama lauded the court's decision.

“I am pleased to see the Supreme Court protect women's rights and health today,” Obama said in a statement. “These restrictions harm women's health and place an unconstitutional obstacle in the path of a woman's reproductive freedom.”

The case centered on whether Texas lawmakers had placed an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to an abortion with the new restrictions. That language was established in the 1992 landmark case Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

The high court has already prevented one piece of the Texas abortion law from going into effect. The court ruled 5-4 last June to temporarily halt the 5th Circuit’s ruling on a mandate for clinics to meet hospital-grade standards.

But during oral arguments in March, the eight-member court appeared deeply divided on the case.

Both Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas penned dissenting opinions. In his 43-page opinion, Alito argued that the law should have been sent to lower courts “for a remedy tailored to the specific facts shown in this case.”

Though the case concerns only the law in Texas, the outcome is likely to have a ripple effect.

Thomas, in his separate dissenting opinion, warned that the majority decision would "surely mystify lower courts for years to come."

Two dozen other states have similar restrictions in place, requiring abortion clinics to meet the standards of hospital-style surgical centers and requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles.

The vast majority of those laws have also been challenged in court, though none have yet made it to the Supreme Court.

[READ THE DECISION BELOW.]

Read Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision