We’ve Been Here Before: Inside the Latest Fight for Abortion Rights at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has accepted a case challenging a Louisiana law that masquerades as a health regulation, but has only one true purpose—to shut down clinics, making abortion care difficult or impossible to obtain. The law is identical to a Texas restriction the Court declared unconstitutional just three years ago, but anti-abortion extremists are hoping for a different result this time around.

Louisiana’s open defiance of the Supreme Court’s strong precedent protecting abortion rights is troubling, but unsurprising. Louisiana, one of the most anti-abortion states in the country, has done everything in its power to make abortion access as stigmatizing, expensive and burdensome as possible. The state has passed laws requiring unnecessary waiting periods, compelling doctors to provide heavily biased “counseling” and forcing women to undergo mandatory ultrasounds. Since 2011, the number of abortion clinics in the state has fallen from seven to just three.

If the law before the Supreme Court is allowed to stand, Louisiana will become the seventh state in the U.S. left with only one abortion provider—as a best-case scenario—and anti-abortion politicians across the country will be emboldened to pass more restrictions, leading to more clinic closures and pushing abortion access entirely out of reach for many women. 

(Lorie Shaull / Creative Commons)

The Center for Reproductive Rights is challenging the Louisiana law, which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, despite the fact that these credentials are medically unnecessary and can be impossible for providers to obtain. Hospitals can refuse to grant them for reasons unrelated to competence—including ideological opposition, fear of backlash or the fact that too few of their patients will ever need emergency care. (Despite what Louisiana would have you believe, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures, with a complication rate lower than colonoscopy or wisdom tooth removal.)

This is known as a “clinic shutdown law,” or TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) law—requiring doctors to have credentials that they don’t need and can’t get is simply an underhanded way to prevent clinics from providing women with constitutionally protected abortion care. While not outright bans, these laws effectively ban abortion by regulating access out of existence. 

The Supreme Court’s 2016 decision striking down an identical Texas law in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt reflected these two clear findings of fact: that admitting privileges provide no meaningful benefit, while creating real burdens on abortion access. That’s why it is difficult to imagine how the Court could justify reaching a different conclusion about Louisiana’s admitting privilege restriction given that the state has admitted its law is literally identical—not similar, identical—to the Texas restriction.

Louisiana lawmakers appear to have simply looked across the border at Texas, saw how effective its law was in shutting down abortion clinics, and decided to play copycat. But a law declared unconstitutional in Texas cannot be constitutional in neighboring Louisiana, and the right to abortion means nothing without meaningful access. 

Every time a clinic closes, it increases the burdens on people who relied on that clinic for care and inevitably cuts off the ability to access that care. When that happens, their fundamental rights now exist only on paper. The resulting harms hurt everyone, but especially heavily on low-income women, women of color, young people, immigrants, women living in rural or medically underserved areas and many LGBTQ people.

These laws are part of an aggressive and far-reaching campaign pushed by extreme anti-abortion groups that are responsible for the passage of more than 470 state-level abortion restrictions in the last eight years alone. Their strategy is simple: to sneak around the Constitution by passing increasingly onerous restrictions that shut down abortion clinics. But it is the role of the Supreme Court to uphold the rule of law and protect our constitutional rights, no matter where we live.

About

Lourdes Rivera is the Senior Vice President of the Center for Reproductive Rights.