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Supreme Court strikes down Louisiana abortion law

The Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that would have required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital. The déjà -vu case was nearly identical to a Texas law that the Supreme Court ruled against four years ago.

In its 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled the Louisiana law was unconstitutional, and that it would pose a “substantial obstacle” to women seeking an abortion. It also upheld a previous district court’s decision that the law offers no significant health-related benefits and imposes an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

Currently, only three clinics remain in Louisiana that can perform abortions.

“They will remain open. This is so important for access to abortion care,” Nancy Northup, CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a media call. The New York-based organization represented the plaintiffs in the case.

“It’s been six very, very long years. To say we are elated does not begin to come close to what we’re feeling,” said Kathleen Pittman, clinic administrator for Hope Medical Group, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “As a provider, I’m celebrating today but I’m still worried about the future.”

Importantly, the ruling also upholds third-party standing, or the right of providers to file cases on behalf of patients.

A group of Louisiana clinics and providers filed the case back in 2014, shortly before the admitting privileges restrictions were set to go into effect. A district court judge ruled against the law a year later, finding that it would leave only one clinic with one provider to serve the 10,000 women who seek abortions annually in the state. The court also pointed to evidence that some hospitals expressly bar anyone with admitting privileges from performing abortions in its decision.

The case was appealed and later overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019.

Meanwhile, in 2016, the Supreme Court struck down a nearly identical law in Texas, which would require providers who perform abortions to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles. That case was Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and the Center for Reproductive Rights also represented the plaintiffs.

“It vindicates what we had said all along. This is an identical law that was found unconstitutional,” Northup said. “The case should have never gone this far.”

That said, the court was divided in its final opinion, leaving an opening for further cases in the future. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan ruled to reverse the Fifth Circuit Court’s decision, striking down the Louisiana law. Justice John Roberts joined them with a concurring opinion based on the court’s previous verdict in the Whole Women’s Health case, while acknowledging that he disagreed with that decision.

Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh filed dissenting opinions, many of them arguing that doctors should not be able to bring the case on behalf of their patients due to a perceived conflict of interest.

The decision doesn’t necessarily clear up restrictions for patients and clinics. There are still 89 abortion restrictions in Louisiana alone, including a rule that requires women to wait 24 hours between the initial appointment and when the abortion is provided.

“The opinion muddies the waters a bit. It could lead to more litigation rather than less,” said Julie Rikelman, senior litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The case is June Medical Services LLC et al. v. Russo, Interim Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. 

Photo credit: Mykola Velychko, Getty Images

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