How the Supreme Court’s ruling on Texas abortion law could affect reproductive rights

Abortion has been front-and-center at the Supreme Court this term. The justices on Friday issued their opinion on a controversial Texas law, allowing abortion providers to continue challenging the measure in lower courts, but leaving the law in place for now. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Abortion has been front and center at the Supreme Court this term. Today, the justices issued their opinion on a restrictive Texas law. They are allowing abortion providers to continue challenging the measure in lower courts, but the law stays in place, for now.

    John Yang picks up the story.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, this is about Texas S.B.8, the law that effectively bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy and allows private citizens to sue people who help a woman get an abortion.

    For reaction, we went back to two advocates on both sides of the debate in Texas whom we have talked with before, Marva Sadler at Whole Woman's Health in Austin, which is an abortion provider, and Rebecca Parma from Texas Right to life.

  • Marva Sadler, Whole Woman’s Health:

    I was hoping for the opportunity today to be able to tell a woman, yes, and not have to tell her no.

    The bright spot and where I'm feeling hope is that the fight is not over. We do still have a chance to go back and to rectify it, to fix this horrible thing that has happened.

    Rebecca Parma, Texas Right to Life: We're celebrating the fact that the Texas Heartbeat Act is still going to be saving about 100 pre-born children and their mothers from abortion every day.

    We will continue to fight for the law at the lower court. But, today, we are celebrating, and we're grateful the law's still in effect.

  • John Yang:

    For what this all means and what comes next, we're joined by Marcia Coyle. She's the chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal."

    Marcia, this was a procedural issue, as Justice Gorsuch noted in the court's opinion. He wrote: "The ultimate merits question, whether S.B.8 is consistent with the federal Constitution, is not before the court, nor is the wisdom of S.B.8 as a matter of public policy."

    So what was at stake here and what happens next?

  • Marcia Coyle, The National Law Journal:

    Well, John, the real question before the court, boiling it down, was a procedural question about, who can these abortion providers sue in order to block the law, if not permanently, temporarily, while their challenges, their constitutional challenge, goes forward?

    And so that's what the court had to decide today and did decide. It narrowed who the abortion providers wanted to sue down to roughly just four people who have licensing authority over doctors and others who might be accused of violating the ban.

  • John Yang:

    So, then what's next now, that they said this case can go forward?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That's right.

    It goes back to the federal district court that initially was trying to hear it, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stepped in and stopped everything.

    The abortion providers and the others who sued to challenge the law can — now know who they can sue, and the federal district court will hear their challenge and decide what kind of relief they should get, if any.

  • John Yang:

    And even though the — sort of the basic constitutional question wasn't at stake here, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by the three liberal justices, seemed to telegraph his position or their position on this.

  • He wrote:

    "The clear purpose and actual effect of S.B.8 has been to nullify the court's rulings. The nature of the federal right infringed does not matter. It is the role of the Supreme Court and our constitutional system that is at stake."

    Now, back in September, this same set of four justices said they would have blocked the law from taking effect.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That's right.

  • John Yang:

    Why did the five other justices keep it in effect, keep this law in effect?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, back in September, they said it was because it presented complex procedural questions about who can be sued, who the abortion providers could get an injunction against, but they resolved that today.

    So I'm not sure. I have no special insight into their thinking why they would not block it right now, except maybe — maybe they have eye on the Mississippi abortion case, which they heard on December 1. Mississippi bans abortion after 15 weeks, and perhaps those five conservative justices think, once that case is resolved, it will have an impact on the Texas case.

    And then, if you want to be totally cynical, you might think these five justices don't place a very high value on the particular constitutional right at issue here, women's right to an abortion.

  • John Yang:

    And, as a matter of fact, some of the conservative justices have talked about the abortion distortion, that they feel that abortion rights get special attention sometimes.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Yes, they have said that over the years.

    We're going to have to wait and see how the Mississippi case plays out. That, as you know, John, is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the landmark abortion rights rulings. But the tenor of the arguments on December 1 don't bode well for maintaining the abortion right, at least as it now exists.

    We will just have to wait and see.

  • John Yang:

    And tell us how the court works. After those oral arguments last week, do they have a sense of where each other stand on this?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Oh, I'm sure they did.

    The usual practice is, depending on which day they hear the argument, is to vote almost immediately after the oral argument. And that can be a very tentative vote on how the case should come out. Much can be done during the drafting of the opinions and whoever was in the majority in that first vote who writes the opinion.

    So, it's — I think it was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said back during the Affordable Care Act, it isn't over until the fat lady sings. So, once again, we just — we have to wait to see how that is going to turn out.

  • John Yang:

    The "NewsHour"'s very own chief justice, Marcia Coyle, thank you very much.


  • Marcia Coyle:

    Thank you, John.

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