Biggest abortion case in decades leaves Supreme Court divided

Police keep watch as protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on the morning that the court took up a major abortion case in Washington March 2, 2016 © Kevin Lamarque
The US Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over a Texas law placing tough new restrictions on abortion providers that would potentially shut down all but nine or 10 clinics across the entire state.

The justices appeared to be closely divided on the merits of the case, and with the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the possibility is there that the court will not be able to reach a majority decision. If it remains deadlocked in a 4-4 vote, the Texas law would remain on the books, thanks to a lower court ruling in favor of the legislation. However, the case would not establish a national precedent.

Essentially, the law mandates that any doctor performing abortions also have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic they work in, so that they could deliver patients there in the event of an emergency. The law also requires clinics to upgrade their standards to meet those of an ambulatory surgical center.

The number of abortion clinics in Texas has already shrunk from 40 to 18 as a result of the law. If the restrictions are upheld by the high court, it is expected that another eight or nine will shutter their doors, and that other states would try to implement similar legislation.

Outside the Supreme Court, hundreds of pro-life and pro-choice activists gathered to support abortion rights. Pro-choice advocates held up signs and pushed the justices to strike down the regulations.

One speaker argued that anti-choice supporters were using "under handed schemes to take women's rights away." 

Elsewhere, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan made a brief appearance to meet with pro-life protesters. Some women who participated held signs reading, "I am a prolife feminist."

During Wednesday’s hearing, the four liberal justices expressed opposition to the law, Reuters reported. Opponents have argued that the regulations impose an “undue burden” on women, making it more difficult for them to seek out an abortion while doing little to make the procedure safer.

The conservative bloc of the court, meanwhile, questioned whether the rules have actually forced as many clinics to close as pro-choice activists claim. Supporters of the law have argued that the regulations are intended to improve safety standards for women and protect their health.

As is often the case, the fate of the law rests largely in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Although he is a conservative, he has frequently voted with liberals in the past. On Wednesday, he said Texas would experience a “capacity problem” if more clinics close, USA Today reported. Additionally, he cited the fact that more women have been receiving surgical abortions rather than medication-induced ones as a result of the law.

"This may not be medically wise," he said, as trends around the US are leaning increasingly towards medication.

If Kennedy rules with the liberals to strike down the law, then other abortion restrictions across the US may also come into the crosshairs. Various states have tried to impose mandates such as 24-hour waiting periods.

However, Kennedy also expressed interest in the idea of sending the case back down to the lower courts so that they could study the law’s effects more closely. More research would determine whether abortion clinics are actually closing because of the new regulations, as well as whether the clinics that would remain could realistically attend to the needs of the state’s women.

Close to 2 million women would live more than 50 miles away from the nearest abortion clinic should the law take effect, according to the Guardian. Some 750,000 would be more than 200 miles away.

Since the landmark Roe v. Wade case protected the right to abortion in 1973, the Supreme Court has ruled that any regulations on the procedure cannot create an “undue burden” on women. As pro-life supporters have failed to block abortion in general, they have recently begun placing more limits on clinics and doctors, leaving the courts to decide whether they qualify as burdensome.