clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Supreme Court overturns abortion clinic restrictions

Supreme Court To Hear Abortion Rights Case Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In a major ruling on abortion, the Supreme Court struck down parts of a Texas law that could have led to the closure of many abortion facilities, setting a precedent for abortion access nationwide.

The surprise 5-3 decision struck down two provisions of a law passed in 2013, requiring abortion clinics to meet strict regulations in order to operate. The first would have mandated that abortion facilities meet the same standards as surgical centers, which would mean — among other things — designing centers with wide hallways for gurneys and installing additional equipment. The second would have required doctors at clinics to be granted "admitting privileges" at a nearby hospital, which would involve meeting additional requirements and going through an in-depth vetting process.

The court found both unconstitutional, saying they created too great an obstacle for anyone seeking an abortion. In the majority opinion, justices said Texas had produced no evidence that requiring admitting privileges would have "helped even one woman obtain better treatment." They also concluded that normal surgical center requirements were "inappropriate" and excessive for clinics that only handled abortions. Since a number of clinics wouldn't have been able to meet the two requirements, the handful of remaining clinics would be overcrowded, understaffed, and difficult to reach in a state the size of Texas. "In the face of no threat to women's health, Texas seeks to force women to travel long distances to get abortions in crammed-to-capacity superfacilities," the opinion concludes.

"In the face of no threat to women's health, Texas seeks to force women to travel long distances to get abortions in crammed-to-capacity superfacilities."

The larger abortion bill went into effect in 2013, and a circuit court found the two key provisions legal. But a Supreme Court decision temporarily blocked them, and the final ruling was thrown in doubt by the death of anti-abortion justice Antonin Scalia, which left an even ideological split in the court. Many expected a stalemate, which would have left the Texas law intact but avoided setting a precedent.

The major issue at play was whether the restrictions placed an "undue burden" on people seeking abortions. Supporters of the bill alleged that it was designed to protect women’s health, but critics called it — and similar laws across the US — a stealth attempt to shut down clinics by requiring expensive and difficult changes that hold little benefit for patients. After the rest of the rule was put in place, over half the clinics in Texas closed, and this rule would likely have further cut that number.

This case has been central to the legal landscape around abortion. Early this year, the Supreme Court declined to consider two similar rules in Arkansas and North Dakota, leaving both measures struck down by lower courts. While this isn't a definitive blow against anti-abortion laws, it's a significant turn for both reproductive rights and American health care at large.