Supreme Court Strikes Down Louisiana Abortion Restrictions

Anti-abortion protesters wait outside the Supreme Court on Monday for a ruling in a case out of Louisiana. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In another blow to the Trump administration, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday that a Louisiana law imposing restrictions on doctors who perform abortions is unconstitutional. 

The decision marks the first ruling on the issue since conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the high court, and is a heavy loss for anti-abortion activists. 

Chief Justice John Roberts once again joined the liberal justices, striking down the rule that reproductive rights advocates warned would limit the southern state to just one abortion clinic. The law required doctors carrying out the procedure to hold admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic. 

While Roberts had dissented in a similar legal battle over a Texas statute struck down in 2016, the chief justice said the holding warranted the same ruling from the court Monday. 

“The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law,” Robert wrote in a concurring opinion. 

A district judge in Louisiana had struck down the abortion law in 2017 — three years after it was adopted amid a surge in abortion restrictions across many red states — over the resulting limited access to abortion especially for poor women. The Fifth Circuit reversed the following year and refused to rehear the case en banc.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the five justices behind the decision Monday looked to the same facts as the district court — and reached the same conclusion. 

“These include its determination that Louisiana’s law poses a ‘substantial obstacle’ to women seeking an abortion; its determination that the law offers no significant health-related benefits; and its determination that the law consequently imposes an ‘undue burden’ on a woman’s constitutional right to choose to have an abortion,” Breyer wrote for the majority. 

The ruling marks a major victory for abortion rights advocates, who praised the decision while calling for bolder action from lawmakers. 

“With this win, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement Monday. The legal advocacy organization represented abortion clinics at oral arguments in March. 

But Northup also warned that the split decision may embolden states to pass even more restrictive abortion laws. 

“Unfortunately, the court’s ruling today will not stop those hell-bent on banning abortion,” she said, calling on Congress to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act to lock in protection under Roe v. Wade for all women in the United States who seek abortions. 

Taking measure of the political climate in the Sunbelt states, the majority recognized on Monday that some doctors who sought admitting privileges at nearby hospitals to keep abortion clinics open faced hostility in Louisiana. 

“‘That opposition to abortion can present a major, if not insurmountable hurdle, for an applicant getting the required covering physician,’” Breyer wrote, quoting the district ruling. 

The Trump administration supported Louisiana in the case, known as June Medical Services LLC et al. v. Russo. A Justice Department spokesperson said the agency was disappointed with the decision.

From the White House, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany issued a statement accusing the justices of intruding on the sovereign power of states to regulate medical procedures. 

“In an unfortunate ruling today, the Supreme Court devalued both the health of mothers and the lives of unborn children by gutting Louisiana’s policy that required all abortion procedures be performed by individuals with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital,” McEnany said. 

Dozens of so-called friends of the court flooded the justices in Washington with briefs as the legal battle came to a head. 

The Human Rights Campaign and the National LGBT Bar Association joined with more than a dozen groups in December to warn the law would shut down clinics providing health care to LGBTQ patients — from contraceptives and wellness check-ups to hormone replacement therapy and insemination services.

“If allowed to go into effect, laws like Act 620 would lead to the loss of trusted sources of essential healthcare for LGBTQ individuals. It could cause some of these individuals to face potential life-threatening conditions that may go untreated for years,” the LGBTQ amici argued. 

But anti-abortion groups said the liberal justices and Roberts relying on the precedent set by Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was just another example of the court relying on jurisprudence that endangered women’s health. 

“It is a sad reflection of our society’s disregard for the well-being of women that a common-sense regulation meant to protect them from incompetent, dangerous practitioners should give way to political and ideological interests,” Grazie Pozo Christie, a policy adviser for The Catholic Association, said in a statement Monday. 

Conservatives raising alarm in the wake of the ruling echoed Justice Samuel Alito, who also argued the Louisiana law protected women. 

Alito faulted the majority for relying on what he called a fundamentally flawed test to determine how many doctors would be shut out of abortion practice by the admitting privileges requirement. 

“When the District Court made its assessment of the doctors’ ‘good faith,’ enforcement of Act 620 had been preliminarily enjoined, and the doctors surely knew that enforcement would be permanently barred if the lawsuit was successful,” he wrote in a 34-page dissent.

“Thus, the doctors had everything to lose and nothing to gain by obtaining privileges,” Alito continued. 

Boxed out by Roberts, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh also penned dissents alongside Alito sharply criticizing the decision. 

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