Abortion rights activists hail Supreme Court ruling against doctor restrictions

In the Supreme Court’s biggest abortion case in nearly 25 years, the justices voted 5-3 to strike down a Texas law — widely copied in other states — that imposed tight restrictions on family planning centers and doctors who perform the procedure. Abortion rights groups were ecstatic and both sides vowed to fight on. Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins Gwen Ifill to dig into the ruling.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    We return to the historic day at the Supreme Court.

    Abortion rights advocates claimed a huge victory as the eight-member court came down 5-3 against a restrictive Texas anti-abortion law.

    For more on end-of-term decision, we turn to "NewsHour" regular Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent of "The National Law Journal."

    Marcia, just to be clear, we're talking about two different restrictive — anti, restrictive laws that were returned today.

    MARCIA COYLE, "The National Law Journal": Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How did this court — take us back.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    OK.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How did this case get to the court?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    OK.

    The abortion clinics in Texas, a group of them, challenged the two Texas regulations that were contained in a law that is now known as HB-2. It was enacted back in 2013. The two regulations, one required clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of the clinic.

    The second regulation required the clinics to meet the building safety and other standards of ambulatory surgical centers that are almost hospital-like.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What was the practical effect of the law as it stood before the court waited?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, when the admitting privileges requirement went into effect, roughly 20 of the 40 existing Texas abortion clinics closed. The clinics estimated that when the ambulatory surgical center requirement would go into effect, which it hadn't, that the 20 remaining clinics would go down to seven or eight.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Was this something that — we have seen this happen with other cases that have made it to court, where there was actually a group that was looking for a challenge?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    No, I mean, this was actually a reaction to what Texas had enacted.

    Texas claimed that these regulations were designed to protect the health of women. The clinics claimed that the regulations were designed to stop abortions. So the clinics challenged them. They lost in the lower federal appellate court, but won in the trial court, but because they lost in the lower federal appellate court, they had to go to the Supreme Court.

    And in the Supreme Court, they claimed that these regulations were unconstitutional under the court's 1992 test that asks whether the regulations or restrictions impose an undue burden on a woman's access to abortion.

    So, you know, what is an undue burden? This is why this case attracted so much attention and concern. What was the court going to say? How was it going to apply that test? Well, the court in '92 did say that unnecessary regulations that have the purpose or effect of imposing a substantial obstacle in the path of the woman constituted an undue, unconstitutional burden.

    And that's what five justices found today the way the two restrictions were implemented. That's the effect of those.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, we talk all the time about how there are normally nine justices, but in this case, there were eight justices.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In the affirmative action last week, there was an outcome because one of the justices recused herself.

    In this case, a 5-3 decision on something this important, something this hot-button, how did that happen, how did it come about, and what was the reasoning that the court put out?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    OK.

    First of all, I don't think that Justice Scalia's presence on the court, had he lived, would have made a difference in the outcome. I think he would have been in the dissent, and it would have been a 5-4 decision.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion, and he took the two requirements one by one, the admitting privileges requirement.

    Abortions, he said, have very rare complications. You don't really need the hospital at hand within 30 miles. He also said that clinic doctors already had working arrangements with other physicians who did have admitting privileges in case it was needed.

    Then he looked at the effect here. When the privileges requirement went into effect, 20 of 40 clinics closed, the result, fewer doctors, increased crowding, longer waits, longer drive distances, and he said there was just no health problem that this law was seeking to cure.

    On the surgical centers requirement, there, he looked and he said, OK, abortion has fewer complications than many of the procedures that Texas law allows to be done outside of surgical centers, in homes, in offices. And the risks there, he said, ordinary birth, childbirth, is 14 times the risk.

    So what's the impact then of that requirement? He looked at that. The 20 remaining clinics would go down to seven or eight.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But the surprise, at least for we novices, was that Justice Kennedy ended up on the same side as — more or less as Justice Breyer.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, Justice Kennedy was in that 1992 decision that reaffirmed Roe v. Wade.

    He had expressed some unhappiness with how the court had applied the 1992 position when it took up some of Nebraska's partial-birth abortion act. But he — as Justice Breyer said in his opinion, as long as the court continued to follow Roe v. Wade and that 1992 Casey decision, this was the way they should interpret the undue burden.

    Gwen, Justice Kennedy was the senior justice in the majority in this case, so he had the right to assign the opinion to anyone who was in the majority.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    By assigning it to Justice Breyer, he knew what he was getting.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    He did. And he got a very fact-laden, straightforward opinion from Justice Breyer.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal," thank you very much. And thank you for the whole term. This has been exciting.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Oh, it's been an unusual term. Thanks, Gwen. My pleasure.

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