Last month’s Supreme Court ruling on a Texas law that closed dozens of abortion clinics has been hailed as the most significant court decision related to abortion since Roe v Wade in 1973.
The decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was important because it tackled two specific and key provisions of a sweeping law to restrict abortions that Texas’s conservative legislature passed in 2013, namely:
1 The requirement of doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles away from the abortion clinic.
2 It required clinics that perform abortions to have the same health and safety standards as ambulatory surgical centers that perform far more complicated procedures.
The practical effect of the law was to close dozens of abortion clinics across the Lone Star State. Opponents of the legislation claimed it would cut the number of abortion clinics from 40 to 10. About half of the clinics had closed by the time of the ruling. The Dallas Morning News reported a 14 percent reduction in abortions in the state.
In a nutshell, the 5-3 ruling of the Supreme Court, which was written by Justice Stephen Breyer, said that both the admitting privileges and the onerous surgical center requirements “constitute an undue burden on abortion access, and thus violate the Constitution.”
Here are five important takeaways from the ruling
1 It Sends a Message to Other States
Republican-led states have been undermining abortion since 2010 when the party made historic electoral gains and doubled the number of states it controlled. The Supreme Court ruling has drawn a line in the sand and made it clear that laws as restrictive as the one in Texas will likely be struck down.
2 It was the First Pro-Abortion Win in More than a Decade
Pro-abortionists have been losing ground for 10 years, even though Roe v. Wade remains in force. The last time they were on the winning side of a major Supreme Court case was 16 years ago, when a 5-4 ruling in Stenberg v. Carhart invalidated a law in Nebraska that banned a procedure abortion opponents called “partial-birth abortion.”
3 Justice Anthony Kennedy Changed Sides
All eyes were on which side Justice Anthony Kennedy would back. Kennedy has been a swing vote on abortion in the past, but he joined the majority side in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The Supreme Court’s future direction on this contentious and polarizing issue is likely to depend on November’s election and which side gets to appoint the ninth judge.
4 The Lack of Health Benefit Argument Was Pivotal
One of the original issues disputed in the case involved the Texas legislation’s perceived benefits for maternal health. While the Fifth Circuit assumed health benefits would arise for women, the Supreme Court said it had demonstrated “blind deference” to the claims of lawmakers with an anti-abortion agenda.
The Supreme Court considered statistics that found there are seldom complications from abortions and even when complications do arise, the H.B. 2 law probably wouldn’t help much.
5 The Opponents of Abortions May Adopt Different Tactics
Anti-abortion lawmakers have become increasingly bold in recent years. Recently, proposals for a total abortion ban were vetoed by the Governor of Oklahoma. Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt may change that because they will be more aware of the possibility of legislation being ruled unconstitutional.
Another ruling could make for an even broader pro-abortion precedent. That would be bad for the opponents of abortion.
We can expect to see states continuing to chip away at abortion laws, but it’s likely to be in a way that’s more subtle that the law in Texas.