Supreme Court abortion decision: Louisiana law struck down

A placard saying, Abortion is a Human Right, is seen during the “Stop The Bans Day of Action for Abortion Rights” rally in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.

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The Supreme Court on Monday voted 5-4 to strike down a restrictive Louisiana abortion measure in a major win for reproductive rights activists, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the court’s four liberals. 

Justice Stephen Breyer, who authored an opinion joined by his fellow Democratic appointees, wrote that the law placed an undue burden on women seeking abortions. Roberts wrote separately to say his thinking was based on the court’s 2016 decision to strike down a similar law in Texas.

The case involved a Louisiana abortion law requiring doctors who provide abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic. Challengers of the law alleged the restriction would limit the state to just one abortion provider at a single clinic. 

Breyer wrote that the law posed a “substantial obstacle” on women and provided “no significant health-related benefits,” and therefore was unconstitutional.

The dispute was the first over abortion to be argued before President Donald Trump’s two appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenged the Louisiana abortion law at the top court, said in a statement that “we’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today but we’re concerned about tomorrow.”

“With this win, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state. But the Court’s decision could embolden states to pass even more restrictive laws when clarity is needed if abortion rights are to be protected,” Northup said.

The Louisiana attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Anti-abortion groups immediately criticized the decision.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, called the ruling a “bitter disappointment.”

“It demonstrates once again the failure of the Supreme Court to allow the American people to protect the well-being of women from the tentacles of a brutal and profit-seeking abortion industry,” Dannenfelser said. 

Dannenfelser said the Supreme Court decision “reinforces just how important Supreme Court judges are to advancing the pro-life cause” and called it “imperative that we re-elect President Trump and our pro-life majority in the U.S. Senate so we can further restore the judiciary, most especially the Supreme Court.” 

The case is the third in a string of major victories for liberals at the high court that have come in the midst of an election battle between Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. 

Earlier this month, Roberts joined the court’s four Democratic appointees rebuffing the Trump administration’s effort to terminate the Obama-era immigration program known as DACA.

Also in June, Roberts and Gorsuch sided with the four liberals in a decision that held that gay and transgender workers can’t be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Trump campaigned on nominating justices who would “automatically” overturn the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade, and the Department of Justice supported Louisiana in the case. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Roberts cites 2016 abortion case from Texas

Roberts said his vote with the liberals on Monday was based on the top court’s precedent in  Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a case the court decided in 2016. In that case, the court struck down a nearly identical Texas law by a 5-3 vote. Roberts voted at the time to uphold the law. 

But in his opinion on Monday, Roberts said that the legal doctrine known as stare decisis, or the principle of adhering to precedent, “requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike.”

“The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons,” Roberts wrote.  “Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.”

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by fellow conservatives Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote that it was true that the Louisiana case and the Texas case “have something in common.”

“In both, the abortion right recognized in this Court’s decisions is used like a bulldozer to flatten legal rules that stand in the way,” he wrote. 

Thomas, in his own dissent, wrote that the Louisiana law was “perfectly legitimate” and criticized his colleagues for perpetuating “its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence.”

“Our abortion precedents are grievously wrong and should be overruled,” Thomas wrote. 

The case is June Medical Services v. Russo, No. 18-1323.

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