The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed abortion-rights advocates a victory, striking down a restrictive abortion law in Louisiana that would have left the southern state with only one abortion clinic.
The vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the court’s four-member liberal contingent. The decision struck down a law that would have required doctors performing abortions to gain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, even though abortion-rights activists say patients rarely need to be hospitalized after the procedure.
The White House deplored the ruling. Spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said it "devalued both the health of mothers and lives of unborn children. Instead of valuing fundamental democratic principles, unelected justices have intruded on the sovereign prerogatives of state governments by imposing their own policy preference in favor of abortion to override legitimate abortion safety regulations.”
In their first abortion case rulings, conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s appointments, were in the minority, voting to uphold the Louisiana law that would have overturned a 2016 ruling by a different group of court justices that struck down an almost identical restrictive abortion law in Texas.
In concurring with the court’s liberal wing, Roberts said respect for court precedent in previous decisions “requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike. The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. Therefore, Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.”
Roberts’s alignment with the court’s four liberals was striking because he declared that he continues to believe that the 2016 Texas case was “wrongly decided,” but that it nonetheless should be adhered to in the Louisiana case.
The decision was a significant win for U.S. abortion-rights advocates and a setback for abortion foes who had hoped that Gorsuch and Kavanaugh would lead the court to impose more abortion restrictions and eventually overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights in the U.S.
Abortion-rights advocates contended that the Louisiana law was a veiled attempt to chip away at the legality of abortion in the U.S. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the majority "consequently hold that the Louisiana statute is unconstitutional."
He said the evidence in the Louisiana dispute “also shows that opposition to abortion played a significant role in some hospitals' decisions to deny admitting privileges" to abortion practitioners.
Health experts estimate that more than 800,000 abortions a year are performed in the U.S., although the figure is down substantially from the 1978 to 1997 period when the annual figures topped a million abortions and peaked at more than 1.4 million.
The question before the court in Monday’s ruling was whether Louisiana’s 2014 law requiring doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals would unduly burden women seeking an abortion.
Abortion practitioners have said it had been all but impossible for a variety of reasons for them to obtain hospital admitting privileges, which would have left Louisiana with a single abortion clinic, in the state’s biggest city, New Orleans.
However, the law’s supporters said it would protect the health and safety of women seeking abortions and would help ensure the competence of doctors.
But abortion-rights supporters cited the rarity of the need for hospitalization after an abortion and said women could, if needed, be hospitalized whether their abortion practitioner had admitting privileges or not.
The Texas law struck down in 2016 said the admitting privilege provision did not have a medical benefit.
In that decision, now-retired justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s four liberals to form a majority. At that time before Trump assumed the presidency, the Department of Justice argued that the Texas law should be struck down. But under Trump, the department backed the Louisiana law.
The court’s 2016 decision said the admitting-privileges requirement “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.”