In a highly anticipated ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on Monday struck down a controversial law that could have greatly limited the number of abortions performed in Louisiana. Chief Justice John Roberts, who recently sided with the Court’s liberal wing in major decisions about LGBT+ rights and DACA, did so again in this case, June Medical Services v. Russo.
The 2014 Louisiana law required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, something abortion opponents say isn’t necessary and restricts access. A lower-court judge who struck down the law in 2017 said Louisiana would likely end up with only one provider in one New Orleans clinic, placing a burden on women’s right to abortion. The following year, however, a federal appeals court reversed that ruling, saying Louisiana’s law “promotes the well-being of women seeking abortions.”
Justice Stephen Breyer, who penned the majority opinion in June Medical Services, notes, “The evidence shows that opposition to abortion played a significant role in some hospitals’ decisions to deny admitting privileges.”
Precedent Matters, Says Chief Justice John Roberts
At issue was whether the Louisiana law differed significantly from a Texas law that SCOTUS declared unconstitutional in 2016. In a 5-3 ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Chief Justice Roberts had sided with the dissenting minority, while on Monday, he sided with the majority—but wrote a separate concurring opinion.
Though he still believes the Texas case “was wrongly decided,” Roberts says precedent must hold. “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 writes. “Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.”
Since the 2016 ruling, President Trump has added to the bench two new conservative-leaning justices: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. But recent decisions haven’t gone Trump’s way, due to Roberts’ somewhat surprising moves.
Justice Clarence Thomas Issues Scathing Dissent
In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas urges SCOTUS to revisit the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which he calls “grievously wrong for many reasons.” Thomas writes, “Today a majority of the Court perpetuates its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence by enjoining a perfectly legitimate state law and doing so without jurisdiction.” He notes that providers’ rights were at stake, not potential patients’ rights, calling “the putative right to abortion” a “creation that should be undone.”
“The Constitution does not constrain the States’ ability to regulate or even prohibit abortion,” Thomas writes. “This Court created the right to abortion based on an amorphous, unwritten right to privacy, which it grounded in the ‘legal fiction’ of substantive due process.”
Both Sides React to Monday’s Ruling
Calling the ruling “unfortunate,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany says, “Instead of valuing fundamental democratic principles, 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.”
March for Life President Jeanne Mancini says her group is “appalled” by Monday’s decision. “The legislation at issue…was designed to safeguard women’s health and safety, which the abortion business in Louisiana egregiously sidelined for the sake of profit,” she says. “No abortion facility should receive a free pass to provide substandard care.”
Abortion proponents are praising the ruling but expressing concern about future cases. Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which brought the case, said Monday’s decision “could embolden states to pass even more restrictive laws when clarity is needed if abortion rights are to be protected.”
Law professor Stephen Vladeck says Chief Justice Roberts’ separate “narrower opinion” may make today’s victory for abortion supporters “short-lived.”