Politics

Supreme Court Upholds Abortion Rights, Strikes Down Restrictive Louisiana Law

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberals in the 5-4 ruling striking down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law, that could set a precedent for other states.

People participate in an abortion rights rally outside of the Supreme Court as the justices hear oral arguments in the June Medical Services v. Russo case on March 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Louisiana abortion case is the first major abortion case to make it to the Supreme Court since Donald Trump became President. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
People participate in an abortion rights rally outside of the Supreme Court as the justices hear oral arguments in the June Medical Services v. Russo case on March 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Louisiana abortion case is the first major abortion case to make it to the Supreme Court since Donald Trump became President. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court struck down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law in a 5-4 ruling Monday, a victory for reproductive rights in the first major abortion case of the Trump presidency.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberals, Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, in blocking the law, which could have closed down nearly all of the remaining clinics in the state. Breyer wrote the majority opinion, and Roberts filed a concurring opinion.

The case, June Medical Services v. Russo, challenged Louisiana’s requirement that doctors who are abortion providers must also have admitting privileges at a hospital within a certain radius of their clinic, a measure that providers claim was unnecessary. Reproductive rights advocates described it as a roundabout way of restricting abortion.

In the majority opinion, Justice Breyer noted that Louisiana’s law “is almost word-for-word identical to the Texas ‘admitting privileges’ law at issue in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.” In the other Supreme Court case, the law that was challenged required “any doctor who performs abortions to hold ‘active admitting privileges at a hospital … located not further than thirty miles from the location at which the abortion is performed or induced.’” The court struck down that Texas law in 2016. Chief Justice Roberts dissented from that decision, but this time, he cited that ruling as the precedent for why he joined the court’s liberals in this case.

Such laws are known as “targeted restrictions on abortion providers,” or “TRAP” laws. Vox Correspondent Ian Millhiser described how they work: “TRAP laws superficially appear to make abortions safer, but they do very little to advance patient health — while simultaneously making it much harder to operate an abortion clinic.” Abortion rights advocates, abortion clinics, and medical professionals argue that the law has no medical benefit.

Abortion clinic and providers challenged the Louisiana law, “alleging that it was unconstitutional because (among other things) it imposed an undue burden on the right of their patients to obtain an abortion,” Justice Breyer wrote in the opinion. The majority agreed with that, holding that “the Louisiana statute is unconstitutional.” 

"The evidence also shows that opposition to abortion played a significant role in some hospitals' decisions to deny admitting privileges,” Breyer wrote.

If the Supreme Court had upheld the law, other states would likely enact similar restrictions, which could lead to clinics closing. Many women’s rights and civil rights organizations celebrated the victory.

Advocates also expressed caution that this doesn’t mean the end of conservative lawmakers’ efforts to continue restricting abortion. 

Trump’s most recently appointed justice, Brett Kavanaugh, dissented from the majority opinion and ruled in favor of upholding Louisiana’s restrictive law. Many people have recalled Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings in 2018, during which Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) voted for him and said she felt “assured” that he would not help the court roll back abortion rights.