The Supreme Court handed abortion rights advocates a victory Friday by blocking a Louisiana law they said would leave the state with only one doctor licensed to perform the procedure.
The court, with only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, issued a brief order that restores an earlier judicial ban on enforcing the 2014 state law.
The ruling is a good sign for abortion rights groups in Louisiana and nationwide. Coming shortly after the justices debated a similar Texas law, the order indicates a majority of the high court is unwilling to permit conservative states to enforce stringent regulations, at least for now.
"For the third time in a little over a year, the Supreme Court has stepped in to preserve women's ability to get the constitutionally protected healthcare they need," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "We look to the justices to put an end to these sham measures threatening women's rights, health and lives across the U.S."
She was referring to the court's rulings last year barring Texas from enforcing a similar law and agreeing to decide its constitutionality.
The Supreme Court is engaged in a fierce debate over whether state laws that impose strict regulations on doctors and abortion clinics put an unconstitutional burden on women seeking to end pregnancies.
The justices established this "undue burden" standard in 1992, but they have yet to decide what it means in practice. The Texas case, which was argued before the court Wednesday, may give the justices a chance to clarify the issue.
In Friday's order, the court said putting the Louisiana law on hold was "consistent with the court's action granting a stay in Whole Woman's Health vs. Cole," the Texas case.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. mostly defended the Texas law during oral arguments Wednesday, but agreed Friday to put the Louisiana measure on hold.
Texas and Louisiana, along with seven other states, have recently required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Lawmakers said this rule would help ensure consistent care for a patient who has a medical emergency that sends her to a hospital.
But a federal judge, after a hearing in New Orleans, said the medical benefits of this requirement were minimal. The clinics and hospitals already had transfer agreements for emergency cases, the judge said. And early abortions rarely result in medical complications.
The requirement threatened to shut down all but one of the state's abortion providers, since most hospitals refused to extend admitting privileges to physicians whose practices include abortions. Based on those conclusions, a federal judge had barred Louisiana from enforcing the admitting privileges rule.
On Feb. 24, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had earlier upheld the Texas abortion law, lifted the judge's order blocking enforcement of the Louisiana law. Two clinics announced they would no longer see patients, and a third said it expected to cease operation as well.
Abortion rights lawyers filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court. Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Thomas has agreed to handle appeals arising from the 5th Circuit.
Abortion rights lawyers said that if the admitting privileges rule were enforced, "the state of Louisiana will be left with a single abortion provider. That lone doctor, working in one clinic, cannot meet the need for approximately 10,000 abortions in Louisiana, a need that was previously met by six physicians in five clinics across the state," they said.
"I am delighted," Kathaleen Pittman, administrator of Shreveport's Hope Medical Group for Women, said in reaction to the Supreme Court's intervention. The small clinic performs the largest number of abortions in Louisiana.
Last week, Pittman was unsure her clinic would be able to remain open after being inundated with patients from the two clinics that had stopped performing abortions. "We were having to delay care because there was no way for us to handle all this," she said.
The two other clinics, in nearby Bossier and Baton Rouge, will now be performing abortions again. But "it's not over by any means," Pittman said.
Mississippi also has a law requiring doctors to have hospital admitting privileges. It threatened to close the state's only remaining abortion provider, but the rule was also blocked in the courts.
These laws are not limited to the South. The Wisconsin Legislature adopted the same requirement, but it was blocked by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the Texas case in part because it has a second, disputed regulation. Lawmakers said all abortions, even those induced by taking a pill, must be performed in an outpatient surgical center. Lawyers fighting the Texas law said the two requirements would reduce the number of abortion providers from 41 to 10.
If the eight justices are evenly divided in the Texas case, they may announce a tie vote soon, which would leave the state law in place. But if they have a majority to rule, their decision will probably be handed down in late June.
Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston contributed to this report.
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