Supreme Court Strikes Down Louisiana Abortion Law
A person in the audience holds up a flag that reads "Abortion" as anti-abortion rights demonstrators and abortion rights demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court on March 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The Supreme Court today struck down a Louisiana law that would require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals as unconstitutional.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the four liberal justices of the court in the 5-4 decision, but not in their reasoning.
In the case, June Medical Services vs. Russo, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority, noting that the Louisiana law was “almost word-for-word identical” to restrictions in Texas that the Supreme Court struck down in June 2016 in the case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. In a 5-3 decision at the time, the court said the requirements — that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and abortion clinics meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers — posed a “substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions” and placed an “undue burden” on their right to seek an abortion.
Since that ruling four years ago, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointments have shifted the court to a solid conservative majority. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sided with liberal justices in the 2016 ruling, retired and was replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh — a move that lawmakers and activists on both sides of the issue saw as a step closer to overturning Roe v. Wade.
In Monday’s ruling, Breyer referenced the 2016 ruling, saying the findings in this case mirrored those from four years ago “in every relevant respect and require the same result.” He wrote, “We consequently hold that the Louisiana statute is unconstitutional.”
Roberts wrote that even though he dissented in the 2016 ruling and still believes the case was wrongly decided, the precedent set by that ruling required the court to “treat like cases alike.”
“The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons,” Roberts wrote. “Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.”
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the case was “brought by abortionists and abortion clinics” who did not have legal standing. He also wrote that “Our abortion precedents are grievously wrong and should be overruled.” Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh also dissented.
FRONTLINE has been documenting the fight over abortion for several decades. In 1983 — 10 years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision — Abortion Clinic showed what women experienced while seeking an abortion in Pennsylvania and talked to members of the community who protested against it.
In 2019, The Abortion Divide returned to the same state to see how the issue had changed over more than three decades. Women shared the deeply personal and sometimes difficult choices that they face when they have an unplanned pregnancy. “I’m already struggling with the four that I have,” Shaharra, one of the women seeking an abortion, shared with FRONTLINE. “So, I’m not sure what my other option would be, but if this wasn’t an option, then I know I would be struggling.”
The documentary also followed members of the anti-abortion community. Dr. George Isajiw, who has counseled women against abortions for several decades, said, “I know that when women find out what abortion really does, and what it’s all about, there are very few who really want to do that to their baby.”
Watch The Abortion Divide to understand how the debate and tactics have evolved over 30 years.
In 2005, The Last Abortion Clinic examined how anti-abortion advocates have succeeded in changing the facts on the ground, while the issue was being debated on the national stage. They created “crisis pregnancy centers” that offer pregnancy tests and ultrasounds in an effort to try to persuade women not to have abortions, and crafted state laws to regulate or limit abortion.
Peter Samuelson, who at the time was the president of Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group dedicated to changing state laws, explained their approach: “If abortion is going to be legal — and it’s going to be for the near term — we want to make sure that when a woman goes in for an abortion, that clinic, like any other outpatient clinic, has the right equipment and the right trained personnel to handle any emergency medical situations that might arise.”
Bonnie Scott Jones, a lawyer who at the time represented the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, said, “These same people that claim that they want the best facility for women are doing everything they can to make any facility that they can control not provide abortions.” She added that “their motive is not to provide an abortion in the environment they believe is safest, it’s simply to stop abortion.”
Opponents of the Louisiana law the Supreme Court struck down Monday told the Jackson Free Press in March that the law could also have made it harder for women in neighboring Mississippi and other states to access abortion if it led to more clinics in Louisiana closing.
And just as it was when The Last Abortion Clinic was released, the focus in the abortion fight is back on the Supreme Court.