The Supreme Court Strikes Down Texas’ Restrictive Abortion Law

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down one of the United States’ strictest abortion laws, in what is seen as one of its most important abortion decisions in a quarter century.

A protest against Focus on the Family's

A protest against Focus on the Family’s “Stand for the Family” event at the Xcel Energy Center, planned by OutFront Minnesota. Photo: Tony Webster.

The heart of the case centered on whether a law in the southwestern state of Texas helps protect the health of women getting abortions or unconstitutionally poses an “undue burden” to keep them from terminating their pregnancies. The Texas law, similar to those enacted in other conservative states as well, requires abortion doctors to have patient-admitting privileges at hospitals near their abortion clinics and for the clinics to be equipped with costly hospital-grade healthcare equipment.

Texas enacted the law in 2013 and has defended it as necessary to protect women in safe medical facilities. It is a contention that abortion supporters reject, saying the law is mainly aimed at cutting the 70,000 abortions that Texas women seek each year.

Already, since the Texas law took effect, abortion rights advocates say its requirements for doctor admitting privileges at hospitals and hospital-like equipment at the clinics have been responsible for the closing of about half of the 40 abortion clinics in the state and that even more will close if the law is upheld.

The 5-3 ruling will immediately prevent Texas from enforcing a law that would have closed nearly all the states’ abortion clinics.

The decision was made by the Supreme Court’s eight justices, with the court left with a vacancy when Justice Antonin Scalia died in February.  Scalia, a stalwart conservative on the court for nearly 30 years, was an ardent abortion foe.

Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested at the March hearing on the dispute that lower courts might need to hear more evidence in the case.

Kennedy has over the years mostly sided with abortion rights justices on the court. He was the deciding vote in a 1992 case upholding abortion rights that were first ruled constitutional in a landmark 1973 decision that to this day is a contentious issue in American politics and society at large.

‘Undue burden’

The 1992 ruling has a direct bearing on the Texas dispute since it set the standard that states could regulate abortion as long as they did not impose an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to the medical procedure. The court is deciding whether the Texas law imposes such a burden.

Abortion rights groups, and a major newspaper in Texas, The Dallas Morning News, say that if the state law is upheld, poor and minority women would bear the brunt of its impact, having to travel hundreds of kilometers more to have an abortion in the state’s biggest cities because the remaining clinics closest to them would not be able to meet the law’s requirements and would shut down.
With better birth control measures, the number of abortions in the U.S. has been falling in recent years, now down to below a million a year. But conservative states, where lawmakers are opposed to the medical procedure, have enacted more than 250 anti-abortion laws since 2010 aimed at cutting the number of pregnancies that are terminated.

Some of these laws could be affected by Monday’s Supreme Court ruling, while legal challenges to other state abortion restrictions could eventually reach the high court in the years ahead.

Abortion rights are a key issue in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, with Democratic contender Hillary Clinton supporting a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. Her Republican challenger, Donald Trump, says he is “pro-life,” opposed to abortion except in the cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is at stake, although years ago he supported abortion rights.

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