Supreme Court

Supreme Court Overturns Louisiana Law Restricting Abortion Access

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with majority to uphold abortion rights

pro-choice activists Supreme Court
Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics, reasserting a commitment to abortion rights over fierce opposition from dissenting conservative justices in the first big abortion case of the Trump era.

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four more liberal justices in ruling that the law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals violates a woman’s right to an abortion.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority that the wording of the law is almost identical to an earlier one from Texas that the court rejected four years ago.

He said that the statue offered “no significant” health benefit to women, but would make it difficult for abortion providers for reasons that have nothing to do with promoting a woman’s health and safety.

In two earlier cases, Roberts had favored restrictions on abortion rights articulated in the landmark Roe V. Wade decision in 1973. That included the earlier Texas case, Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstadt.

Roberts wrote that he continued to believe that case had been wrongly decided but adhered to it and joined the majority in this case.

“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent, “Today a majority of the Court perpetuates its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence by enjoining a perfectly legitimate state law and doing so without jurisdiction.”

Also dissenting were President Donald Trump's two Supreme Court appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and Justice Samuel Alito. Abortion opponents had hoped the addition of Gorsuch and Kavnaugh to the court would make it more likely that it would uphold restrictions.

The Louisiana case is the first major abortion rights case to reach the court since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who supported the access to an abortion guaranteed under Roe v. Wade and was the court's swing vote.

This is Roberts' first vote on the side of abortion rights and it could reflect his new role as the court’s swing justice and his concern about the court being perceived as a partisan institution as well as his respect for a prior decision of the court, even one he disagreed with.

The Louisiana law, enacted in 2014, would have required any doctor offering abortion services to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. Two doctors and a medical clinic sued saying it would leave only one doctor at a single clinic to provide abortions for nearly 10,000 women.

A trial judge had said the law would not provide health benefits to women and would leave only one clinic open in Louisiana, in New Orleans, making it too hard for women to get an abortion, in violation of the Constitution.

But the appeals court in New Orleans rejected those findings and upheld the law in 2018, doubting that any clinics would have to close and saying the doctors had not tried hard enough to establish relationships with local hospitals.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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