Supreme Court strikes down Texas abortion clinic restrictions

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Monday struck down Texas abortion restrictions that have been widely duplicated in other states, a resounding win for abortion rights advocates in the court's most important consideration of the controversial iss...

Demonstrators celebrate at the Supreme Court after the court struck down a Texas law imposing strict regulations on abortion doctors and facilities. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Monday struck down Texas abortion restrictions that have been widely duplicated in other states, a resounding win for abortion rights advocates in the court's most important consideration of the controversial issue in 25 years.

Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's liberals in the 5 to 3 decision, which said Texas's arguments that the clinic restrictions were to protect women's health were cover for making it more difficult to obtain an abortion.

The challenged Texas provisions required doctors who perform abortions at clinics to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and said that clinics must meet hospital-like standards of surgical centers.

Similar restrictions have been passed in other states, and officials say they protect patients. But the court's majority sided with abortion providers and medical associations who said the rules are unnecessary and so expensive or hard to satisfy that they force clinics to close.

Texas officials criticized the decision for what they described as judicial overreach that they said will endanger innocent lives.


"The decision erodes states' lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in a statement. "Texas' goal is to protect innocent life, while ensuring the highest health and safety standards for women."

Kennedy, the court's pivotal justice on abortion rights, assigned the opinion to Justice Stephen Breyer. The court's liberal female justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, joined it.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

The outcome of the Texas case turned on an interpretation of the court's ruling nearly 25 years ago in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Written by three justices including Kennedy, it said states had a legitimate interest in regulating abortion procedures but could not impose an "undue burden" on a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability.

Included in the description of such a burden was "unnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion."

Breyer wrote that each of the Texas restrictions "provides few if any health benefits for women, poses a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions and constitutes an 'undue burden' on their constitutional right to do so."

Ginsburg joined Breyer's opinion but wrote separately to amplify its message, saying it fit within the court's previous rulings protecting abortion rights.

"So long as this Court adheres to Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws like HB2 that 'do little or nothing for health but rather strew impediments to abortion' cannot survive judicial inspection," she wrote.


The outcome would almost surely had been 5 to 4 had Justice Antonin Scalia not died in February, and in his dissent, Thomas quoted his friend. Monday's decision "exemplifies the court's troubling tendency 'to bend the rules when any effort to limit abortion, or even to speak in opposition to abortion, is at issue,' " Thomas wrote, quoting a Scalia dissent in a different case.

Alito also objected to the majority and read parts of his dissent from the bench to emphasize his disagreement.

"This is an abuse of our authority," Alito said, holding up the thick packet of regulations. The court had "no authority to strike down perfectly legal provisions."

He and Roberts said they would have returned the law to lower courts to tailor a more limited remedy that would have kept the law on the books.

President Barack Obama praised the ruling Monday, saying that the restrictions in Texas "harm women's health and place an unconstitutional obstacle in the path of a woman's reproductive freedom."

"We remain strongly committed to the protection of women's health, including protecting a woman's access to safe, affordable health care and her right to determine her own future," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "Women's opportunities are expanded and our nation is stronger when all of our citizens have accessible, affordable health care."

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Monday in a statement: "For many years, the Supreme Court has maintained that regulations with the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion constitute an undue burden on women trying to exercise their reproductive freedom, and are contrary to principles enshrined in the Constitution. I am pleased that the Supreme Court has reaffirmed this longstanding principle in its decision today."

Lynch vowed that the Justice Department "will continue to defend the constitutional rights of women across America - including the right to reproductive freedom."


Abortion rights advocates also hailed the decision. Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which led the litigation on behalf of the Texas clinics said: "Today women across the nation have had their constitutional rights vindicated. The Supreme Court sent a loud and clear message that politicians cannot use deceptive means to shut down abortion clinics."

If the law, called H.B. 2, were fully implemented, Northup had said, the number of clinics in the nation's second-largest state would have been reduced from more than 40 to about 10.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, called the decision "a victory for women in Texas and across America" in a message posted on Twitter. She also said that despite the ruling, the fight over abortion access will continue into the next presidency and beyond.

"This fight isn't over: The next president has to protect women's health," Clinton wrote in the tweet, which was signed to designate it was written by her rather than a staffer. "Women won't be 'punished' for exercising their basic rights."

Clinton's likely Republican general-election opponent, Donald Trump, did not publicly react to the ruling Monday morning, and his campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Leading Republicans in Texas, meanwhile, sharply criticized the court's ruling, with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, saying that the ruling "sets a dangerous precedent" for the country.

"Commonsense requirements that abortion clinics be held to the same standards as other medical facilities put the health of the patient first, and today's decision is a step back in protecting the well-being of mothers across our state," Cornyn said in a statement.

Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, called the restrictions "an effort to improve minimum safety standards and ensure capable care for Texas women" and said the ruling was disappointing.

"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," Paxton said in a statement.



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