Supreme Court to hear first major abortion case in 8 years

Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole deals with a challenge to a 2013 Texas law that imposes strict requirements for abortion clinics. 

Jonathan Ernst/Files
Anti-abortion activist Craig Kuhns wears mirrored sunglasses and a piece of tape over his mouth as he stands in front of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, in this June 1, 2009 file photo. The U.S. Supreme Court took up a major new abortion case on November 13, 2015, agreeing to hear a challenge by abortion providers to parts of a restrictive, Republican-backed Texas law that they contend are aimed at shutting clinics that offer the procedure.

For the first time since 2007, the Supreme Court will hear a major abortion case, issuing what could be a landmark ruling before the 2016 elections.

Announced Friday, the decision to hear challenges against a 2013 Texas abortion law will affect the reproductive rights of millions of women across the United States. If the justices uphold the lower court’s support for the strict abortion provisions, the number of abortion clinics in Texas will be reduced to fewer than 10.

Since Roe v. Wade established abortion as a constitutional right in 1973, various states have attempted to limit access to abortions. The Supreme Court’s last big abortion case, Gonzales v. Carhart, dealt with a method of second-trimester abortions – “intact dilation and extraction,” D&X or what anti-abortion activists call “partial-birth” abortions.

The ban on such procedures was ultimately upheld eight years ago by the court’s conservative majority ruling, to which Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely viewed as the Court's moderate, contributed.

In this upcoming case, he will likely be, once again, the pivotal swing vote. As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak reported, "The future of abortion rights in the United States probably rests almost entirely in his hands, given the deadlock on the court between conservatives and liberals.”

The decision will likely arrive early in the summer, along with rulings on other major issues such as immigration, affirmative action, and public unions, just as the presidential election enters its heated final four months. 

The abortion case at hand, however, is anticipated to be the most significant in this term. Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, No. 15-274, disputes two measures of a state law that enacted strict provisions against abortion. One part requires doctors that perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and the other calls for every clinic to meet the standards of hospital facilities, including those concerning equipment, staffing, and building codes.

Supporters of the law say the contested provisions are necessary to ensure the health and safety of abortion patients, while opponents claim the excessive and expensive requirements are a veiled attempt to get rid of abortion clinics wholly.

The lead plaintiff, Amy Hagstrom Miller, says the law is a clear contradiction to the precedent, established in 1992, that there may not be substantial obstacles placed in the path of a woman seeking abortion.

"There's an undue burden when women have to drive 250 miles one way, take off two days of work and get child care in order to have a procedure that is protected by the Constitution," she told CNN.

Miller owns and operates four abortion clinics in Texas. She is represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Ken Paxton, Texas’s attorney general, maintained that the measures are reasonable and appeal to common sense.

“The common-sense measures Texas has put in place elevate the standard of care and protect the health of Texas women. The state has wide discretion to pass laws ensuring Texas women are not subject to substandard conditions at abortion facilities,” he said in a statement Friday. “The advancement of the abortion industry’s bottom line shouldn’t take precedence over women’s health.”

If the measures prevail, the only remaining clinics will be in the four major metropolitan areas of the state – Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio.

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