6.29.20 — Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana abortion restriction, following long-held legal standards protecting abortion rights and access. The ruling allows the state’s three remaining abortion clinics to stay open and continue to provide care.
The 5-4 victory in June Medical Services v. Russo marked the second time in four years that the Center for Reproductive Rights challenged an abortion restriction at the Supreme Court and won. The Louisiana law overruled is identical to the Texas law the Court declared unconstitutional in the 2016 case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
“This is a big win that vindicates what we’ve said all along, which is that the Louisiana admitting privileges law is unconstitutional,” said Nancy Northup, President and CEO of the Center. “This is a victory for the people of Louisiana and the rule of law, but this case never should have gotten this far. We won an identical case four years ago in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and the fact that we had to fight so hard again goes to show that nothing should be taken for granted when it comes to protecting abortion rights.” Read Northup’s full statement on the June Medical Services v. Russo decision here.
June Medical Services v. Russo is the first major abortion case decided by the Court since Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
“This case is similar to, nearly identical with, Whole Woman’s Health. And the law must consequently reach a similar conclusion. Act 620 is unconstitutional. The Court of Appeals’ judgment is erroneous. It is Reversed.”
Breyer’s Opinion for the Plurality and Roberts’ Concurrence
In writing for a plurality of the Court, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “This case is similar to, nearly identical with, Whole Woman’s Health. And the law must consequently reach a similar conclusion. Act 620 is unconstitutional. The Court of Appeals’ judgment is erroneous. It is Reversed.”
With respect to the legal standard, Breyer wrote, “We apply the constitutional standards set forth in our earlier abortion-related cases, and in particular in Casey and Whole Woman’s Health.” Applying that line of precedent to the facts of this case, the plurality found “We have examined the extensive record carefully and conclude that it supports the District Court’s findings of fact. Those findings mirror those made in Whole Woman’s Health in every relevant respect and require the same result. We consequently hold that the Louisiana statute is unconstitutional.”
Breyer’s opinion in June Medical Services was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice John Roberts concurred in judgment based on the Court’s precedent in Whole Woman’s Health. He wrote, “Stare decisis instructs us to treat like cases alike. The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law. The Louisiana law burdens women seeking previability abortions to the same extent as the Texas law, according to factual findings that are not clearly erroneous. For that reason, I concur in the judgment of the Court that the Louisiana law is unconstitutional.”
While following the Court’s precedent, Roberts also reiterated his opposition to that earlier decision: “I joined the dissent in Whole Woman’s Health and continue to believe that the case was wrongly decided. The question today however is not whether Whole Woman’s Health was right or wrong, but whether to adhere to it in deciding the present case.”
Commenting about today’s decision, Northup said, “Indeed, the Court did not speak with a clear majority opinion which could muddy the waters when clarity is needed to protect abortion rights.”
Decision Adheres to Critical Precedents
In today’s June Medical Services decision, the Court followed the “undue burden” legal standard that it has long applied in abortion rights cases. The standard was first established in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which held that states cannot unduly burden the ability of people to exercise their constitutional right to abortion. In 2016, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court reaffirmed that legal test when it declared the Texas admitting-privileges law unconstitutional because of the burdens it imposed on the ability to access abortion care without providing health or safety benefits.
Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch each wrote dissenting opinions in today’s case.
“This is a big win that vindicates what we’ve said all along, which is that the Louisiana admitting privileges law is unconstitutional. This is a victory for the people of Louisiana and the rule of law.”
Louisiana Law Would Have Devastated Access
The Louisiana law, Act 620, would have required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. These types of laws are opposed by medical experts, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, since they don’t improve patient safety and instead harm health by reducing access to care.
Abortion care is already difficult to access in Louisiana, which has passed 89 restrictions–more than any other state. The number of abortion clinics in the state has fallen from seven in 2011 to three today. Approximately 10,000 people seek abortion care each year in Louisiana, a state with one million women of reproductive age.
Federal Legislation Is Needed to Stop the Relentless Attacks on Abortion Access
“Access to abortion care has a profound impact on a person’s health and life. For this reason, the Constitution protects the most intimate decisions that a person makes about their body, their health, their life, and their future,” said Northup.
“Yet for decades, opponents of reproductive rights have relentlessly sought to deny the promise of Roe v. Wade with an avalanche of laws targeting providers, clinics, and patients,” she added. “These laws disproportionately impact communities of color, young people, rural communities, and people living in poverty. In Louisiana, abortion restrictions disproportionately harm African Americans who already live under the weight of systemic racism that pervades every aspect of American life including housing, voting, education, employment, and health. Louisiana lawmakers should be addressing these ingrained inequities rather than taking people’s rights away.”
The Louisiana law struck down today is just one part of an ongoing, coordinated effort by anti-abortion lawmakers to legislate abortion out of existence. Politicians have enacted more than 450 state abortion restrictions in the last decade, and almost 90% of counties in the United States are without a single abortion provider.
The Center is currently litigating approximately 30 cases challenging restrictive laws and policies.
“Unfortunately, the Court’s ruling today will not stop those hell-bent on banning abortion. We will be back in court tomorrow and will continue to fight state by state, law by law to protect our constitutional right to abortion, said Northup. “But we shouldn’t have to keep playing whack-a-mole. It’s time for Congress to pass The Women’s Health Protection Act, a federal bill that would ensure the promise of Roe v. Wade is realized in every state for every person.”
The Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) would answer calls to “codify Roe” and protect abortion access from bans and medically unnecessary restrictions like the Louisiana admitting privileges law struck down today.
The lead counsel in June Medical Services v. Russo are Julie Rikelman and Travis J. Tu, with the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the co-counsel is O’Melveny & Myers LLP.