Supreme Court strikes down Texas’ abortion law

Demonstrators on both sides of the abortion issue stand in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 20, 2016, as the court announced several decisions. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a 5-3 vote, the Supreme Court strikes down the two main provisions in Texas’ House Bill 2 abortion law, declaring it unconstitutional.

Texas’ abortion law known as H.B. 2, was passed by lawmakers in 2013. It requires abortion centers to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers like having large operating rooms, wide corridors, and doctors with admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Prior to the bill passing 41 clinics in Texas performed abortions, now just 19 are open.

In the ruling, the court said the admitting privileges and surgical center requirements place a “substantial obstacle” for women seeking an abortion, which violates the Constitution. The ruling goes on to say there is evidence that shows the additional requirements are “generally unnecessary in the abortion clinic context” and that it “provides no benefit when complications arise in the context of a medical abortion.”

Critics argued HB 2 made it harder for women to access a clinic for an abortion and for those who have to travel long distances it would lead women to wait until their second trimester to get an abortion.  In the ruling, the justices cited that the admitting privileges requirement led to the closure of half of Texas’ clinics, which in turn the “number of women of reproductive age living in a county… more than 150 miles from a provider increased from approximately 86,000 to 400,000.”

The state argued HB 2 was passed to protect women’s health.

“Complications from an abortion are both rare and rarely dangerous.”—Justice Ginsberg

“HB2 was an effort to improve minimum safety standards and ensure capable care for Texas women,” said Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement. “It’s exceedingly unfortunate that the court has taken the ability to protect women’s health out of the hands of Texas citizens and their duly-elected representatives.”

The opinion issued said that neither of the provisions “offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens.” In Justice Ruth Ginsberg’s concurring opinion she states: “In truth, complications from an abortion are both rare and rarely dangerous.”

The ruling could potentially lead the way for some clinics to reopen in Texas. “It will create a pathway for more clinics to reopen in communities that don’t have an abortion provider and it will send a strong message to anti-abortion politicians that they can’t attack access to health care in the way that they’ve done recently,” says Zoey Lichtenheld, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

The plaintiff in the case, Whole Woman’s Health, said it had to close one of its clinics in Austin in the summer of 2014 because it would have been too costly to retrofit its clinic to be in compliance with HB 2.

Minutes after the ruling, Amy Hagstrom Miller, Founder and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health said in a statement, “Every day Whole Woman’s Health treats our patients with compassion, respect and dignity—and today the Supreme Court did the same. We’re thrilled that today justice was served and our clinics stay open.”

While most of H.B. 2 was struck down, the Supreme Court kept in place the part of the law that banned abortions after 20 weeks.

How the Justices Voted

The eight Supreme Court justices based their decision on whether the law imposes restrictions that unconstitutionally limit a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. Twelve other states have enacted similar laws. Critics worry if the justices uphold the law it could be a potential stepping-stone towards a reversal of Roe v. Wade.

The decision was made with a court of four liberal justices, three conservative justices and one swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts were the dissenting votes.

In his dissent, Thomas writes how today’s decision “perpetuates the Court’s habit of applying different rules to to different constitutional rights—especially the putative rights to abortion.”

In Alito’s dissent, he said he doesn’t dispute the fact that H.B. 2 caused some clinics to close but there was “absence of proof regarding the reasons for particular closures is a problem because some clinics have or may have closed for at least four reasons” that aren’t related to H.B. 2.

Timeline of events

In what became a filibuster heard around the world, State Senator Wendy Davis stood for 11 hours on June 25, 2013 in the hope of killing the Republican-backed bill that would create some of the nation’s toughest abortion regulations. Gov. Perry called legislators back the next day and the measure was passed within weeks. He signed the bill into law on July 18, 2013. 

A federal judge in Texas struck down parts of the law aimed at reducing access to abortion, rather than promoting women’s health. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans disagreed, mostly siding with the state. On Oct. 14, 2014, the Supreme Court blocked key parts of the 2013 law. Attorneys for the state denied that Texas women would be burdened by fewer abortion facilities, saying nearly 9 in 10 would still live within 150 miles of a provider, the Associated Press reported at the time.

In June 2015, the country’s highest court put the appellate ruling on hold, suggesting a majority of supreme court justices support cutting state regulations on abortion clinics.

In November 2015, the Supreme Court decided to take on the case involving Whole Woman’s Health—its first abortion case in eight years.

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