June Medical Services v. Russo concerned a Louisiana law that sought to ban doctors from performing abortions unless they had admitting privileges at a local hospital, which in practical terms would leave the state with a single eligible abortion provider.
The court, which leans conservative with Trump’s appointees, declared the law to be unsafe for women in a 5-4 vote.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who in two previous cases ruled in favor of abortion restrictions, joined Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in their ruling.
“Enforcing the admitting-privileges requirement would drastically reduce the number and geographic distribution of abortion providers, making it impossible for many women to obtain a safe, legal abortion in the State and imposing substantial obstacles on those who could,” Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan wrote.
In an opinion written separately from his four more liberal colleagues, Roberts likened the case to a Texas law struck down four years ago that also required physicians performing abortions to have active admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
“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,” he wrote.
The justices appeared divided on the issue when they heard arguments in March. Chief Justice Roberts was the expected swing vote at the time, and his questions focused on the extent to which the court was bound by its decision in a nearly identical 2016 case out of Texas. He dissented with the court’s ruling against that law.
Opponents of the Louisiana law say restricting which doctors may perform abortions is not only medically unnecessary, it puts an undue burden on women’s right to access the procedure.
Many abortion providers cannot easily obtain hospital admitting privileges, doctors have explained, because of the excessive paperwork required and because of resistance from hospitals that don’t want to appear as though they’re taking sides on the issue. Some hospitals also set up impossible-to-meet benchmarks for granting the admitting privileges, such as doctors having to admit a minimum number of patients each year in order to keep the privileges.
A 2018 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that 95% of women who have abortions in the U.S. receive them in clinics or offices, and that such facilities were perfectly equipped to handle such a procedure.
The law’s supporters have relied on arguments that abortion is a dangerous, high-risk procedure, even though the procedure has a lower rate of hospitalizations than a wisdom tooth removal.
Dr. Bhavik Kumar, a family medicine physician in Texas and the medical director for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which operates two clinics in Louisiana, told HuffPost last year that forcing women to leave the state for an abortion would only increase the risk of complications.
“We know from rigorous studies that barriers to access abortion care in a timely manner create harm, rather than actually increasing the safety profile,” Kumar said of the Louisiana law. “When laws that are masked as promoting the health and safety of our patients are actually harming them, that’s when I think a lot of us become concerned.”
Several states have sought to pass anti-abortion laws during the Trump era. Like many of those measures, the Louisiana one was justified as based on concerns for the health of women rather than moral objections to abortions. But the effect is to further the goals of those opposing abortion rights, said Michelle Erenberg, the executive director of Lift Louisiana, an organization focused on women’s health in that state.
“I think it was actually a pretty clever move on their part,” she told HuffPost last year of those who pushed for the law. “It’s easier for people to see these regulations as reasonable and not as just an effort to prohibit abortion or shut down abortion clinics, even though we all know that that is their impact.”
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.