WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear a challenge to key parts of Texas’ 2013 abortion law that supporters of abortion rights say is one of the strictest in the nation.
The court has not heard a major abortion case since 2007, and its decision will likely come down sometime next spring or early summer in the heat of the presidential campaign. If the justices uphold the lower court’s decision and allow two provisions of the law to go into effect, the number of available clinics in the state is expected to fall to about 10.
While supporters of the law argue it’s meant to protect women’s health, opponents say it has nothing to do with health and safety, but instead is a disguised attempt to put an end to abortion. Other states have similar legislation percolating through the lower courts.
One provision at issue requires that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The other mandates that clinics upgrade their facilities to hospital-like standards.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, who owns and operates four clinics in Texas, is the lead plaintiff in the case and is represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights. She says the provisions directly challenge court precedent that renders a law invalid if it “has the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion.”
“There’s an undue burden when women have to drive 250 miles one way, take off two days of work and get child care in order to have a procedure that is protected by the Constitution,” she told CNN.
Hagstrom Miller is supported by Jennifer Dalven of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, who says the justices will ultimately decide “what types of obstacles states can put in the path of women who have decided to have an abortion.”
“We know that doctors can’t get admitting privileges for reasons that have nothing do with their medical competence,” Dalven said, adding that some medical groups say that the costly upgrades to facilities aren’t medically necessary.
But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton counters in legal briefs that the provisions “raise the standard of care for all abortion patients” and maintains that if allowed to go fully into effect the law will “improve the health and safety of women.”
Paxton stresses that the Supreme Court has recognized that states have a legitimate interest in protecting the health of a woman and that the law “ensures doctors are qualified, promotes continuity of care in the case of complications that require hospitalization, and reduces communication errors and time delays when a patient must be treated at a hospital.”
He says that every metropolitan area with an abortion facility currently operating in Texas will still have an operating facility if the lower court ruling is upheld and that while some abortion providers may choose to close their doors “rather than comply,” some other ambulatory surgical centers in Texas might begin to perform abortions.
It’s not the first time the Texas law has come before the justices. On the last day of the 2015 term, five justices agreed to temporarily block the lower court ruling from going into effect until the full court could consider briefs on the issue. Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented from that order.
Nancy Northup, the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, hailed the Supreme Court’s announcement.
“Today the Supreme Court took an important step toward restoring the constitutional rights of millions of women, which Texas politicians have spent years dismantling through deceptive laws and regulatory red tape,” she said in a statement.
But the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative group, said in a statement that the requirements of Texas’ law are “common-sense protections that ensure the maximum amount of safety for women.
“Abortionists should not be exempt from medical requirements that everyone else is required to follow,” the group added.