WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will take up the most important abortion case in two decades Wednesday as the justices consider a Texas law requiring that doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals and clinics upgrade their facilities to hospital-like standards.
It’s the first major controversial case the court has handled since the death last month of Justice Antonin Scalia. The fact there are only eight justices raises the possibility the court could end up in a 4-4 split — a possibility that would allow the Texas law to take effect but not set a national precedent.
Supporters of the law argue that it is meant to protect women’s health, but opponents say it has nothing to do with health and safety but is instead a disguised attempt to end abortion. Similar laws enacted in other states are percolating through the lower courts.
Lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights, representing Texas clinics such as Whole Woman’s Health Center, argue that the requirements in the law do not enhance abortion safety but instead will make it harder for women to end a pregnancy by reducing their access to the clinics.
“The impact of these closures has been dire, delaying many women — and preventing others — from obtaining a legal abortion,” argued Stephanie Toti, a lawyer for the center, in court papers. “This, in turn, has led to an increase in abortions later in pregnancy and in illegal abortions.”
Other groups, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association, have weighed in against the Texas law — called H.B. 2 — arguing it lacks valid medical justification.
The medical groups say there is no need to upgrade their facilities. “Surgical abortions simply do not require the size, layout or equipment of a full operating theater,” their lawyers argue in court papers. They also stress that local admitting privileges for abortion providers are unnecessary for reasons have nothing to do with a clinician’s competence, noting that such privileges are often given to clinicians who admit a certain number of patients.
The law applies to any abortion clinic that provides more than 50 abortions a year. Lawyers for the clinics say that the vast majority of women in Texas receive abortion services at such clinics.
Before the law, there were more than 40 facilities in the state. That number was cut in half once other provisions of the law went into effect. If the court were to rule in favor of Texas, there would be about 10 clinics in the state.
Toti argues that wait times in some areas are now lengthy and that the law violates court precedent by placing a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking an abortion.
She says court precedent requires “meaningful judicial review to prevent unjustified intrusions on a woman’s constitutionally protected liberty.”
Texas counters that the law was passed in response to the Kermit Gosnell scandal. The Pennsylvania man was convicted in 2013 of first-degree murder for killing babies that were born alive in his clinic.
Texas Solicitor General Scott A. Keller argues in court papers that if the court upholds the law, an abortion clinic “will remain open in each area where one will close, meaning that over 90% of Texas women of reproductive age will live within 150 miles of an open abortion clinic.”
Keller says that challengers to the law want the court to serve as a medical board “by second guessing legislative judgments supported by medical evidence” and that the court has “made clear that such decisions belong to legislatures.”
Eyes on Kennedy
In the courtroom, all eyes will be on Justice Anthony Kennedy, expected to be the swing vote in this case.
The death of Scalia shifts the calculus somewhat. Before his passing, supporters of abortion rights knew that one scenario could be that the justices might uphold the law and use the Texas case to narrow a woman’s right to an abortion nationwide.
That now seems unlikely to happen. If Kennedy sides with the court’s conservatives, and the liberal bloc stays together, there would be a 4-4 split. That means the law would be upheld, but there would be no new national precedent. If Kennedy sides with the liberal wing, it would be a 5-3 ruling striking down the law.
If the court is split, justices could also ask for re-argument next term.
Friend of the court briefs
Being the first major abortion case in years, the case has seen a high number of friend of the court briefs, including many from women on both sides of the issue who have had abortions.
Former Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat who filibustered a similar version of the law for nearly 13 hours in 2013, signed one brief detailing her experience in having to terminate two pregnancies for health reasons. Another brief was filed by several women who chose to have an abortion and “strongly believe that the right to access an abortion was and is crucial to their and every woman’s ability to define her own existence.”
Actress Amy Brenneman, among others, signed the brief detailing the abortion she had in 1986 when she was a 21-year-old junior at Harvard. The brief says that her access to an abortion “when she was not ready for motherhood” allowed her to “avoid the depression that would have accompanied the derailment of her life plans” and enabled her to “exercise sovereignty over her body.” She later went on to have two children.
On the other side is an amicus brief filed by the Justice Foundation on behalf of 3,348 women across the country who say they have been injured physically or psychologically by their abortions. Approximately 600 to 700 of women who signed the brief are from Texas or had abortions in the state.
“The abortion industry needs strict, rational, but serious regulation,” Kathleen Cassidy Goodman, a lawyer for the foundation argues in court papers. An appendix to the brief includes the names of the women and in some instances the names they chose for their aborted children. Goodman argues that the Supreme Court should defer to the “proper legislative process.”
Texas is also supported by former abortion providers who argue that the law “provides common sense health and safety regulations to protect women.”
They point to Gosnell’s clinic that was described by one district attorney as a “house of horrors.”