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Supreme Court strikes down Louisiana abortion clinic restriction

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  • The US Supreme Court has truck down a Louisiana law requiring clinics that perform abortions to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital within 30 miles away.
  • In the case, June Medical Services v. Russo, the court ruled 4-4-1, with Chief Justice John Roberts concurring with the majority. 
  • In 2016, the Court struck down an almost identical law in Texas in the case Whole Women’s Health vs. Hellerstedt, ruling that such restrictions pose an “undue burden” on a patients’ ability to access abortion.
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In a major victory to abortion access advocates, the US Supreme Court has struck down Louisiana law requiring clinics that perform abortions to obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals in a 4-4-1 decision. 

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, with Chief Justice John Roberts concurring with the majority. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch dissented. 

The case, June Medical Services v. Russo, is the first pertaining to abortion rights that the Court has ruled on since Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh were confirmed to the Court. 

The Court heard arguments in the case in March of 2020 after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to uphold Louisiana’s law in 2019. 

Louisiana’s restriction, passed in 2014 as part of Act 620, required  abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. The law is a type of regulation known as a Targeted Restriction on Abortion Providers, or “TRAP,” law.

Such laws place burdensome requirements on clinics that make it more expensive and difficult for them to operate, causing many to close altogether. The regulations can include requiring the hallways at clinics to be a certain width, mandating procedure rooms be a certain size or temperature, and being within a certain distance of a hospital

In 2016, the Supreme Court struck down a very similar law in Texas in the case Whole Women’s Health vs. Hellerstedt, ruling that a Texas law also requiring clinics to secure hospital admitting privileges was unconstitutional.

In that 5-3 decision, the Court ruled that Texas’ law violated the precedent set by the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, in which the Court ruled that state-level abortion restrictions must have a medical justification and not place an “undue burden” on a patients’ ability to access the procedure. 

An extremely low percentage of abortions result in complications that require hospitalization. A 2014 study of abortion patients in California found that out of 54,911 patients included in the research, only 0.22% had “major complications” requiring hospitalization, surgery, or a blood transition, and just 2% of patients had minor complications within six weeks of the procedure. 

A 2018 study conducted by some of the same researchers at the University of California San Francisco‘s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health project examined states that enacted admission privilege requirements and  found that the laws did not have an impact on the way abortion patients received hospital care.

The researchers concluded that admission privilege laws did not significantly affect hospitalization because “the majority of patients were referred to a hospital before the abortion was attempted and most were for suspected ectopic pregnancy or to perform the abortion in a hospital.” 

The costs posed by TRAP laws to clinics’ ability to operate, however, are significant. In Texas, for example, the number of clinics providing abortions fell from 41 in June of 2013 to just six in September 2014 following the implementation of Texas’ TRAP law, H.B. 2. After the Whole Women’s Health decision in 2016, the number of Texas providers increased back up to 21. 

Abortion access advocates and experts have argued that a decision affirming the constitutionality of Louisiana’s law would give a number of other states the green light to enact similar restrictions.

According to Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion access, admission privilege requirements are currently in effect in two states, North Dakota and Missouri.

The Supreme Court letting Louisiana’s law stand would allow similar TRAP laws to take effect in seven Southern states, Guttmacher said, in addition to making it easier for legislatures in other states to pass such restrictions. 

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