Abortion-Rights Backers Score Biggest Top Court Win in Years

  • Justices strike down Texas abortion restrictions in 5-3 ruling
  • State required surgical standards, doctor admitting privileges

Supreme Court Strikes Down Texas Abortion Limits

A divided U.S. Supreme Court gave the abortion-rights movement its biggest legal victory in a generation, striking down Texas restrictions that had threatened to close three-quarters of the state’s clinics by setting new requirements for facilities and doctors.

The 5-3 ruling is the court’s first abortion decision in almost a decade. It invalidates provisions that required clinics to meet hospital-like surgical standards and forced abortion doctors to get admitting privileges at a local hospital. The majority rejected the state’s contentions that the rules safeguarded patient safety.

The law provides “few, if any, health benefits for women, poses a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions, and constitutes an undue burden on their constitutional right to do so,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court.

The case divided the court along ideological lines. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Breyer in the majority.

Kennedy, the court’s pivotal vote on abortion, had suggested during arguments in March that he might favor returning the case to a lower court for more scrutiny. He instead joined a majority opinion that relied heavily on a 1992 decision he co-wrote reaffirming the constitutional right to end a pregnancy.

President Barack Obama said he was pleased with the decision and said in a statement, “Women’s opportunities are expanded and our nation is stronger when all of our citizens have accessible, affordable health care.”

For a QuickTake explainer on the long history of abortion clinic battles, click here.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton hailed the ruling in a Twitter posting as a “victory for women in Texas and across America. Safe abortion should be a right -- not just on paper, but in reality.”

The campaign of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, didn’t make any public statement on the ruling, but it did contact Christian leaders to reaffirm support for appointing anti-abortion justices to the court, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Abortion opponents who backed the state law expressed disappointment.

“The decision erodes states’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on his website. “Texas’ goal is to protect innocent life, while ensuring the highest health and safety standards for women.”

The case tested how much leeway the government has to regulate clinics in the name of protecting women’s health. The effect of the law was to leave some patients hundreds of miles away from the nearest provider.

The ruling means many Texas clinics will be able to re-open, though abortion-rights advocates said that might not happen right away.

“I am beyond elated,” Amy Hagstrom-Miller, the chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates Texas clinics and challenged the law, said in a statement. “Every day Whole Woman’s Health treats our patients with compassion, respect and dignity -- and with this historic decision, today the Supreme Court did the same.”

Writing for the dissenters, Alito said the court should have thrown out the suit on procedural grounds because of an earlier, unsuccessful challenge to the admitting-privileges requirement. He rejected the majority’s conclusion that opponents were entitled to challenge the law a second time once the state had begun enforcing the measure and forcing clinics to close.

‘Better Evidence’

“What the court means by this is that petitioners now have better evidence than they did at the time of the first case with respect to the number of clinics that would have to close as a result of the admitting privileges requirement,” he wrote.

Reading a summary of his dissent from the bench, Alito put it more pithily: “If at first you don’t succeed, sue, sue again.”

The ruling raises new questions about some of the more than 300 abortion restrictions put in place around the country since 2010. Those laws include limits on drug-induced abortions and bans on procedures after specified points in a pregnancy.

The ruling will give abortion-rights advocates new leverage in challenging those laws.


“Today’s ruling is a game-changer in what has been an unrelenting assault on women’s rights across the country,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represented the clinics and doctors challenging the law. “This tremendous victory renews the promise of Roe v. Wade for the next generation,” she said, referring to the landmark 1973 abortion-rights ruling.

Texas was one of 10 states with admitting-privileges requirements and one of six that requires clinics to meet surgical-center standards, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. About half of those laws have been on hold.

"It’s hard to see how similar regulations can stand” in other states, Northup said. The Supreme Court probably will act Tuesday on appeals that seek to revive admitting-privileges laws in Mississippi and Wisconsin.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had largely upheld the rules. The Supreme Court blocked the surgical-center requirement during the litigation, but the justices let the admitting-privileges rule take effect in 2013, voting 5-4 with Kennedy in the majority.

Qualified Doctors

Texas said the admitting-privileges rule ensured qualified doctors and promoted continuity of care in the event of complications. The state said the surgical-center requirements provided a sterile environment for abortions and protected patients from being treated in substandard clinics.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was disappointed.

“It’s exceedingly unfortunate that the court has taken the ability to protect women’s health out of the hands of Texas citizens and their duly-elected representatives,” he said in a statement.

Joe Pojman, executive director of the anti-abortion Texas Alliance for Life, said in a statement the ruling struck down “common-sense regulations to protect the health and safety of women at substandard abortion facilities.”

10 Abortion Clinics

The clinics and doctors challenging the law said the state failed to show the regulations actually further its stated objectives.

Abortion-rights advocates said during the litigation that the measure, had it taken full effect, would have cut to 10 what once were 42 Texas abortion clinics. All but one of those would have been in state’s four biggest metropolitan areas -- Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin.

None would have been in the western half of the state because the two clinics now in El Paso would have had to close. The nearest Texas clinic to El Paso would have been 550 miles (885 kilometers) away.

“In the face of no threat to women’s health, Texas seeks to force women to travel long distances to get abortions in crammed-to-capacity superfacilities,” Breyer wrote. “Patients seeking these services are less likely to get the kind of individualized attention, serious conversation, and emotional support that doctors at less taxed facilities may have offered.”

In a one-paragraph concurring opinion, Ginsburg alluded to Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor who performed late-term abortions in a squalid clinic and was eventually convicted of murder. Although proponents of the Texas law said they were trying to prevent similar scandals, Ginsburg said a reduction in abortion access would mean that "women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners."

In a separate dissenting opinion, Thomas said the court was using a double standard, protecting some constitutional rights more vigilantly than others.

"Unless the court abides by one set of rules to adjudicate constitutional rights, it will continue reducing constitutional law to policy-driven value judgments until the last shreds of its legitimacy disappear," Thomas wrote.

The case is Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, 15-274.

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