The law, which was blocked with a 5-4 vote, required any doctor performing abortions in the state to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals

By Maria Pasquini
June 29, 2020 12:09 PM
Supreme Court building
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

In its first major abortion rights case in years, the Supreme Court voted on Monday to strike down a restrictive Louisiana law.

The Louisiana law, which was blocked with a 5-4 vote, required any doctor performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

The law was similar to Texas legislation that had been struck down in 2016, with Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was considered the Supreme Court’s swing justice, joining in with the court’s four liberal members: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

This was the court's first major abortion rights case since 2018, when Kennedy retired.

Although generally viewed as a conservative-leaning judge, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberal wing on Monday’s vote, which came a week after he also voted in favor of giving LGBTQ workers federal protection against discrimination as well as preventing President Donald Trump from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In his decision, Justice Roberts referenced the law the Supreme Court struck down in 2016, which also called on doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Another provision of the law would have required all clinics where abortions were performed to meet all of the same standards as outpatient surgical centers.

According to The New York Times, in the 2016 decision, Breyer wrote that “neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes. Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access, and each violates the federal Constitution.”

Although Roberts did not vote with the majority in 2016, he said that his decision on Monday was made with the previous judgement in mind. "The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law," wrote Roberts, who did not join in with the majority opinion, according to the Associated Press.

“This is a big win that vindicates what we’ve said all along, which is that the Louisiana admitting privileges law is unconstitutional. This is a victory for the people of Louisiana and the rule of law, but this case never should have gotten this far...and the fact that we had to fight so hard again goes to show that nothing should be taken for granted when it comes to protecting abortion rights,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. 

“Unfortunately, the Court’s ruling today will not stop those hell-bent on banning abortion. We will be back in court tomorrow and will continue to fight state by state, law by law to protect our constitutional right to abortion. But we shouldn’t have to keep playing whack-a-mole," Northup continued. "It’s time for Congress to pass The Women’s Health Protection Act, a federal bill that would ensure the promise of Roe v. Wade is realized in every state for every person.”

Only two of the five doctors who perform abortions in Louisiana had obtained admitting hospital privileges, according to The New York Times. However, one of the doctors testified that he would not be able to handle the work alone, and a trial judge previously concluded that if the law went into effect, it would have left just one doctor in one clinic available to provide abortions in the state.

Although the law was previously blocked in 2017 by a federal judge on the grounds that the restriction would be an “undue burden” on women seeking to uphold their constitutional rights to abortion access, an appeals court rejected the findings in 2018, according to the Associated Press.

As the case went to the Supreme Court for deliberation, an emergency appeal was filed, asking the court to stop the law from being enforced until a decision was made. In a foreshadowing of Monday’s vote, last year Justice Roberts joined with the liberal wing of the court to grant the request.