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Opinion

Editorial: Supreme Court rejects states’ ploy to roll back abortion rights

Supreme Court abortion decision
Pro-choice supporters celebrate outside the Supreme Court after the court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt on June 27.
(Michael Reynolds / EPA)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down two onerous provisions in a Texas abortion law sends a clear and powerful message that medically unjustified restrictions that obstruct a woman’s access to abortion are unconstitutional. In its most sweeping decision on abortion since 1992, the court reaffirmed what it said at that time: If a law regulating abortion before the fetus is viable is more an obstacle to women than a benefit to them then it violates the Constitution. 

It’s reassuring that the court dismissed the state’s argument that the restrictions were designed to protect women, finding it to be mere subterfuge for an effort to block women from getting legal abortions. Notably, Texas isn’t the only state with such regulations. There are lawsuits in a variety of states currently challenging similar laws. The Supreme Court ruling should lead courts across the country to wipe them off the books.

In the 5-3 vote in Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt, the court held that Texas legislators had gone too far in requiring that doctors who provide abortions must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and that abortion clinics must be outfitted like ambulatory surgical facilities. The 2013 law, which was partially enjoined while the Supreme Court reviewed it, had already forced half of the 40 clinics in the state to close.  Had the court upheld the law and allowed all of its provisions to go into effect, all but about 10 clinics would have been compelled to shut down, leaving many women hundreds of miles from a clinic and overwhelming the few facilities that remained open.

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But that’s the point of the law and others like it around the country — to deter women from obtaining safe, legal abortions. Rejecting the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ findings, the Supreme Court’s majority found that the state’s supposed concern about the safety of abortion clinics was merely pretextural. As Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in his opinion for the majority, the total number of deaths from abortion in Texas was five from 2001 to 2012. “Nationwide, childbirth is 14 times more likely than abortion to result in death… but Texas law allows a midwife to oversee childbirth in the patient’s own home,” Breyer observed.

Just as damning, outpatient centers with far higher rates of mortality, such as those performing colonoscopies or liposuction, aren’t required by the state to equip themselves as surgical units. Quoting from the federal district court decision, Breyer wrote that the state’s rules on ambulatory surgical centers “‘have such a tangential relationship to patient safety in the context of abortion as to be nearly arbitrary.’” In short, the rationale for Texas’ latest abortion regulations was fictitious, but the harms to women seeking abortions were real.

The  bluntness of the court’s ruling is a welcome rebuke to the disturbingly widespread efforts by states to obstruct access to abortion by imposing tougher requirements on abortion providers in the name of medical safety. Sadly, the ruling is unlikely to stop anti-abortion lawmakers. Instead, they will simply look for other legislative gimmicks to undermine the constitutional right recognized in Roe vs. Wade. But when those laws appear, the courts should recognize them for what they are as swiftly and succinctly as the five justices did in this case.

 

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