U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear Louisiana abortion case; here’s what’s next

3 weeks ago The Advocate 0

WASHINGTON — The battle over a Louisiana law that would require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court on Friday agreed to hear the case after debating its merits behind-closed-doors this week. Earlier this year, the court narrowly stopped the 2014 law from taking effect.

Abortion rights advocates challenging the law had argued that the Supreme Court should have struck down the law immediately because they believe the court already ruled on the matter when it struck down a similar Texas law three years ago.

The court, which has seen a turnover in justices since that ruling, instead opted to further review the case. The court session starts Monday. A date hasn’t yet been set for the Louisiana abortion case, which will likely come in the winter. A ruling would be expected to come early next summer.

The case already has drawn intense national interest as the first major abortion restrictions test for the court since a pair of Trump nominees were seated. Trump has vowed to appoint justices with an eye on overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established the legal right to abortion.

If the Louisiana law is allowed to go into effect, doctors who terminate pregnancies would be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.

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The crux of the argument against the law has been that it’s modeled after the Texas law that the high court already struck down. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that agreed to uphold Louisiana Act 620 ruled that “unlike in Texas, (Louisiana’s law) does not impose a substantial burden on a large fraction of women” and would affect, at most, 30 percent of Louisiana women.

About 10,000 abortions are performed in Louisiana each year.

Louisiana, which tends to be among states with the toughest restrictions on abortion access, has three remaining abortion clinics — one each in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport. There were five when Act 620 passed the Louisiana Legislature in 2014. Opponents of the pending law say it would reduce the number further.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, whose Department of Justice is defending the law, said he firmly believes the Louisiana law will be upheld.

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“Going forward, my office and I will be carefully reviewing the next steps in our defense of Louisiana’s admitting privileges law,” he said Friday after the court’s decision to take up the case. “We will not waver in defense of our state’s pro-woman and pro-life laws; and we will continue to do all we legally can to protect Louisiana women.”

The law’s opponents argue that the safety claim shouldn’t pass legal muster and that the issue was already decided with the Texas ruling from 2016.

“Louisiana is openly defying the Court’s 2016 ruling that states can’t use sham medical regulations to shut down clinics,” said Michelle Erenberg, executive director of Lift Louisiana, a women’s health advocacy group that supports abortion rights. “We are hopeful that the Court will uphold the rule of law, protect our constitutional rights, and be independent of partisan politics. The people of Louisiana shouldn’t be denied their rights because of where they live.”

The high court’s decision to delay the law’s implementation, just hours before it was set to take effect in February, came on a 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the more liberal wing of the court — Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

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Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s appointees, were not on the bench in 2016 when the court, in a 5-3 decision, deemed the Texas admitting privileges law unconstitutional.

In the 5-4 decision in February to delay implementation of the Louisiana law, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh both sided with allowing the law to go into effect.

Only one of the existing Louisiana clinics currently would meet the admitting privileges requirement, and critics of the 2014 law have argued that it would shutter the other two, crippling access to abortions for thousands of Louisiana women.

Planned Parenthood predicted the case could have a ripple effect across the country.

“Access to abortion is hanging by a thread in this country, and this case is what could snap that thread,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Three years ago, the Supreme Court decided that laws like this one in Louisiana had no purpose other than to make abortion more difficult to access. There’s only one reason the court would not strike down the Louisiana law and that is because Justice Kennedy, who voted to protect abortion access just three years ago, has been replaced with Justice Kavanaugh.”

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat who sponsored the 2014 legislation, said the case is one of allowing a “state to enforce its duly enacted laws aimed at protecting the health and safety of its citizens.”

“Together with my colleagues, our Legislature passed the Unsafe Abortion Protection Act by a wide bipartisan margin to protect the health and safety of women,” she said. “Abortion has known medical risks, and the women of this state who are often coerced into abortion deserve to have the same standard of care required for other surgical procedures.”

An independent poll this year found nearly a quarter of Louisiana residents said abortion should be outlawed, even in cases of rape and incest. That rate was higher than any other state, according to the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute’s survey.

Louisiana currently bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and requires a 24-hour waiting period between first consultation and when a pregnancy can be terminated. The state Legislature has passed laws that would restrict abortion to 15 weeks of pregnancy or to when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, about six weeks of pregnancy. Both of those laws, which were signed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, would go into effect only if similar laws in Mississippi survive legal challenges.