Supreme Court hands down ruling on abortion rights; what does it mean?

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a Louisiana law that would require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals is unconstitutional.

The court voted 5-4 in June Medical Services v. Russo that a ruling made in 2016 in an abortion rights case in Texas already answered the question of whether a state could force an abortion provider to be able to admit patients to a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic before he or she could perform the procedure.

Had the justices sided with the state, there would have been only one abortion provider for the state of Louisiana who was able to admit a patient to a nearby hospital.

Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the four liberal justices on the court, despite the fact he voted against the 2016 law that blocked Texas from requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Roberts, who filed a concurring opinion for the majority, said in the opinion that while he disagreed with the Texas ruling, it is the precedent set by the court and it should be honored.

“The legal doctrine of stare decisis requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike,” he wrote. “The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.”

The majority opinion was written by Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.  

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissent, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing separately, denouncing the court's precedents.

“Those decisions created the right to abortion out of whole cloth, without a shred of support from the Constitution’s text,” Thomas said. “Our abortion precedents are grievously wrong and should be overruled.”

Here’s a look at the case and what the ruling means.

What was the case?

June Medical Services v. Russo was a challenge to a 2014 Louisiana law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges—or an agreement between a doctor and a hospital that allows the doctor’s patient to go to a nearby hospital if they need urgent care. 

According to the Louisiana law, the doctor would have to have privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where abortions are being performed.

The Louisiana law is nearly identical to a Texas law that required abortion providers to have admitting privileges to nearby hospitals. That case — Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt — was struck down by the Supreme Court in a 2016 decision that said requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges placed an undue burden on a woman seeking an abortion. 

The undue burden in that case grew from the fact that so few abortion providers had privileges at Texas hospitals, meaning women would often have to drive hundreds of miles to find an abortion clinic.

The justices ruled in 2016 that the right to a legal abortion provided in Roe v. Wade was useless if women did not have access to a doctor who would perform the abortion.

How did the Louisiana case get to the court if the court had already decided the Texas case?

The case came before the Supreme Court because Louisiana argued that the Hellerstedt ruling applied only to Texas and no other state.

Why wasn't it decided in Louisiana?

The case came before a federal district court in Louisiana that found that the Supreme Court ruling in Hellerstedt permanently blocked the Louisiana law that required an abortion provider to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

That federal district court ruling was appealed and overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. That decision moved the case to the U.S. Supreme Court for consideration.  

What else was in the case?

In the Russo case, Louisiana included another challenge that questioned “third-party standing” in abortion lawsuits. 

Third-party standing means that a third party—someone who is not the person who is directly impacted in the case—is allowed to argue on behalf of the person who is seeking an abortion. 

In the Russo case, the state of Louisiana was asking the court if June Medical Services had the right to bring the case in the first place.

The court ruled that third-party standing applied to this case, meaning a woman seeking an abortion is not the only party who can challenge the state (file a lawsuit) if she is denied an abortion.

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