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What Supreme Court decision on Louisiana law means for U.S. abortion rights

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that placed restrictions on doctors who perform abortions. Chief Justice John Roberts provided the swing vote to form a 5-4 majority. John Yang reports on the implications of the decision for abortion rights and how Roberts’ role on the Court has evolved.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the Supreme Court struck down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law with a 5-to-4 majority.

    As John Yang reports, Chief Justice John Roberts provided the decisive vote.

  • John Yang:

    Chief Justice John Roberts was again in an unusual position today, siding with the four reliably liberal justices to strike down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law by a 5-4 majority.

    Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the decision, relying on the 2016 5-3 ruling invalidating a nearly identical Texas law, at the time, the court's biggest endorsement of abortion rights in a quarter-century.

    Then, Roberts was on the other side, among the dissenters. Today, in a concurring opinion, he wrote of the importance of Supreme Court precedent: "The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. Therefore, Louisiana's law cannot stand under our precedents."

    Roberts said he still believes the Texas case "was wrongly decided. The question today, however, is not whether it was right or wrong, but whether to adhere to it in deciding the present case."

    Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal" says it underscores Roberts' emergence as the court's swing vote.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Overlay on that his concern for the credibility of the institution. And he tends then to write fairly narrow opinions when he does move to the left, as he did here.

    He's not going to make any immediate gigantic shifts left or right, although he's capable of doing that and has done some in the past.

  • John Yang:

    In a statement, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany called the ruling unfortunate and said: "Unelected justices have intruded on the sovereign prerogatives of state governments by imposing their own policy preference in favor of abortion to override legitimate abortion safety regulations."

    Roberts, in particular, is drawing the ire of conservative legal scholars, like John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation.

  • John Malcolm:

    Rather than calling balls and strikes, as he pledged to do during his confirmation hearings, he comes down with an opinion that I think can be appropriately characterized as a political one.

    So, strangely enough, while trying to keep the court out of politics, the court becomes more involved in politics than ever before.

  • John Yang:

    For President Trump's appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, it was the first case involving abortion rights. Gorsuch criticized the majority in a dissent, calling its ruling "little more than the judicial version of a hunter's stew. Throw in anything that looks interesting, stir, and season to taste."

    In his dissent, Kavanaugh said lower courts need to determine more about how the Louisiana law would affect access to abortion there.

    While today's ruling is a victory for abortion rights, analysts say there are more challenges ahead.

  • Mary Ziegler:

    And people who are celebrating today's decision as a big win for abortion rights are, in my opinion, going to have a rude awakening.

  • John Yang:

    Law professor Mary Ziegler studies U.S. abortion law.

  • Mary Ziegler:

    It's clear that there will be more abortion restrictions upheld by this court and that access to abortion will be more limited.

    If you're thinking about the ultimate fate of Roe v. Wade, in some ways, I think that's more up in the air today than it was yesterday.

  • John Yang:

    The Louisiana law, which has never gone into effect, would have required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

    Abortion rights advocates said that would have left the state with just one abortion provider. The law's backers said it was to safeguard women.

    Angie Thomas is the associate director of Louisiana Right to Life.

  • Angie Thomas:

    This is all about just protecting women, keeping them safe from substandard care, and substandard care that we know to be true through the violations over the last two decades and more.

  • John Yang:

    But abortion rights advocates say, the complication rate is extremely low, less than 1 percent.

    Kathaleen Pittman is administrator of a clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana, which would have been left with a single part-time physician permitted to perform abortions.

  • Kathaleen Pittman:

    How many times have we actually had to transport? I think we were able to come up with four instances over a 20-year period.

    A woman who is pregnant is at much greater risk for her health and her life should she continue that pregnancy vs. having an abortion.

  • John Yang:

    And with today's rulings, the clinic's doctors will be able to continue performing abortions.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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