U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Potentially Influential Abortion Case

Empty vintage court's room with table,chairs and microphones.

This past Friday, The United States Supreme Court announced that it would hear a case involving a Texas law that restricts access to abortion for women. This will be the first time the Court has heard an abortion case since 2007, and has the potential to mark the most influential decision on the issue since 1992. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear this case comes at a time where attempts at restricting abortion are rampant.

In May, The House of Representatives passed a bill banning abortions after 20-weeks. The bill and the debate surrounding it were divisive in nature. The vote was held during National Women’s Health Week, and required rape victims to receive medical attention and counselling prior to obtaining an abortion; it also originally required mandatory reporting of sexual assaults to police. In September, the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act did not pass a vote on cloture, meaning the Senate voted to end the debate on this issue before voting on the bill could even take place. However, it may still be brought before the Senate in the future.

This bill not only being brought forward but being passed by the House, shows that while rights to abortion were won over 40 years ago, there are still constant challenges to it and to a woman’s right to make health care decisions regarding her own body. In relation to the federal bill, Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for health and reproductive rights for the National Women’s Law center, placed the issue in this context. She stated that, “some members of Congress think politics – not medical expertise or a woman’s health – should drive important health care decisions”, and that, “passing an unconstitutional nationwide ban on later abortions does nothing to help women – instead, it threatens their health and lives and interferes in their personal medical decisions”. It is in this context that the Supreme Court will be deciding upon such an important issue; upholding the Texas law as constitutional would erode entrenched rights for women.

The Texas law in question in Whole Woman’s Health v Cole places restrictions upon obtaining an abortion. Doctors performing abortions must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and abortion clinics must have surgical facilities. At issue here is the difficulty in complying with these regulations, which are opposed by major medical organizations like the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Doctors must admit a quota of patients in order to retain admitting privileges at hospitals. However, abortion doctors rarely admit patients to the hospital due to the procedure, as it is safe, and thus are not able to obtain the admitting privileges. Similarly, other medical procedures with more risks are not required to abide by the surgical requirements. Thus, these regulations are seemingly unnecessary and would only have the effect of restricting access to abortion for women seeking it.

Because of these measures the vast majority of the abortion clinics in Texas will be forced to close. There are currently 42 abortion clinics in Texas, but only 10 will remain if this bill is upheld. The bill states that it is providing greater care for abortion patients, but in practice it would simply make it more difficult for women to access safe abortion. A lower court made the argument that closing that many clinics would not cause undue hardship for those seeking an abortion, citing that those near the Mexican border can simply drive to nearby Mexican towns and have abortions. The language here highlights that many lawmakers and deciders do not understand the issue. If the bill purports to increase care for women seeking abortions, then telling them to simply go to Mexico seems to be in direct contradiction of that. Furthermore, even though the statement was problematic to say the least, those not living near the Mexican border are not mentioned; the closure would seemingly negatively affect many rural individuals, by denying them reasonable access. Limiting access to abortion facilities only serves to marginalize women.

Similar to those who were arguing against the federal abortion bill, those who have fought the bill in Texas claim it “treat[s] women as though they are not capable of making their own medical decisions” and violates “women’s constitutional rights to control their bodies”. This law is not the only one currently working to undermine a constitutionally won right to abortion for women. 50 restrictions have been enacted this year alone, and nearly 300 since 2010. The manner in which the Supreme Court views and decides upon this case will have an enormous effect on the tide of this issue; ruling that the law is constitutional will push more restrictive laws nationwide, and further erode women’s rights in their own personal medical decisions.

I will be following the Court’s ruling in this case and will continue to report on it.

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.