In a major victory for abortion rights, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that states can’t restrict access to abortion under the pretense of protecting women’s health — unless there are some actual health benefits.
Three years ago, Texas passed a law requiring all abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals — and forcing abortion clinics to be licensed as surgical centers. It’s the same law that gained national attention when state Representative Wendy Davis mounted an unsuccessful filibuster in her pink sneakers.
While supporters of the law said it was designed to improve women’s health, five of the eight justices disagreed, finding “nothing” in the record to suggest that “the new law advanced Texas’ legitimate interest in protecting women’s health” — and ample reason to expect the law would actually harm women by making it more difficult for them to obtain necessary care.
What does this mean for abortion rights?
Many states have laws that make it more difficult to get abortions, even when abortions are legal. Some have passed laws requiring waiting periods and counseling, others have enacted expensive regulations for abortion clinics.
What the court said today is that this approach goes too far if those policies make it vastly harder for women to get abortions without sound evidence of medical benefits. Texas didn’t have any such evidence (in fact, the legislative record suggests health was never really a chief concern.)
The full reach of this ruling is still unclear, however. Moving forward, many abortion restrictions will still need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. States whose restrictions echo those in Texas are likely to face new lawsuits. But other approaches — like mandatory waiting periods — have previously received the court’s blessing.
Would the decision have been different with Scalia?
The late Justice Antonin Scalia was no supporter of abortion — having argued repeatedly for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. But even if he were still on the court, today’s decision would probably have come out the same way, only 5-4 instead of 5-3.
It was Justice Kennedy who took up his familiar position as the swing vote, providing a pro-choice majority of five and handing the day to the liberal pack.
For Texas’ laws to have been affirmed by the court would have required something more than Scalia’s vote. It would have required his persuasive voice along with the assumption that Kennedy could have been swayed across the judicial aisle.
Were there any other rulings today?
Yes. One was a technical ruling about what counts as misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. The other was a juicier case involving former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell.
McDonnell, a onetime rising star of the Republican Party, fell to disgrace when he was convicted of corruption, having taken money — plus shopping sprees, a vacation, and an engraved Rolex — in exchange for influence.
A unanimous court ruled, however, that influence-peddling of this type doesn’t necessarily qualify as corruption. For that, you need a tighter connection between gift and political benefit — like a bribe for a vote.
So while the facts haven’t changed, McDonnell’s risk of jailtime has been temporarily lifted. The Supreme Court did leave open the possibility that McDonnell could be tried again using this narrower definition of corruption.
What happens next?
Summer break isn’t just for kids and teachers. Supreme Court justices get time off too, which they’ll be enjoying until the next term begins in the fall.
And with the nomination of Merrick Garland having fallen into perpetual limbo, it seems likely that when the court reconvenes, they will still be short-staffed.
Like the rest of us, they’ll need to wait out the presidential race before they know how their collective lives will unfold.