The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments this Wednesday, March 2, in one of the most important abortion cases to come before the Court since 2007. The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, involves a challenge to an abortion safety standards law enacted by the Texas legislature in 2013, and has the potential to either positively or negatively impact similar pro-life laws in a number of other states.
At issue in the case are two provisions in the law that: (1) require all abortionists in Texas to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, and (2) require abortion facilities to meet the same health and safety standards as ambulatory surgical centers. The pro-abortion Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) is challenging the Texas law on the grounds that it “unduly burdens” women’s access to abortion, arguing that since the law’s passage, the number of abortion facilities in the state has decreased from 40 to 19. In a June 2015 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected that argument, upholding most of the two provisions. The CRR then appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of the key questions the justices will consider is whether the Texas abortion safety regulations meet the “undue burden” standard established in the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which said that states may not enact “[u]nnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion.” How the Court rules in the Texas case could impact the abortion safety standard laws of a growing number of states. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 22 states (including Texas) have some variation of abortion clinic standards in place, and 14 states require some type of hospital admission standards (or hospital relationship) for abortion doctors.
Denise Burke, vice president for legal affairs at Americans United for Life (AUL), submitted a friend of the court brief in the case. She told NC Family that this legal challenge really comes down to abortion access versus the health and safety of women. “This case offers a unique and much-needed opportunity to educate the Supreme Court and the American public about the reality of ‘back-alley’ abortions in America and to expose the abortion industry’s widespread and callous disregard for women’s health and safety,” Burke said. She pointed out that “convicted Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell provided ‘mere access’ to abortions in a clinic where a woman died because a stretcher could not fit through the hallways, unsterilized instruments spread infections, and parts of unborn babies were stored in jars like macabre trophies.”
According to Burke, even with “the tragic death of pro-life Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the State of Texas only needs 4 votes to win. In the case of a 4 to 4 split, the well-reasoned decision by the Fifth Circuit upholding the Texas law will be affirmed.” Although neither side knows how the Court will ultimately rule, Burke emphasized that, “since Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that a state has ‘a legitimate interest in seeing to it that abortion, like any other medical procedure, is performed under circumstances that ensure maximum safety for the patient.’”
A ruling in the Whole Women’s Health case is expected by this summer.