In the most significant abortion rights decision since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has struck down some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the country: namely, a Texas law that would have forced all but ten clinics in the state to close.
In a 5-3 ruling, the court declared the Texas law unconstitutional. It's thrilling news for reproductive rights activists, who say that the decision in this case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, reaffirms American women's constitutional right to choice in an increasingly polarized political environment.
"Today is a great day for women, for our commitment to our Constitution, and for the values of freedom and dignity that all Americans hold dear," said NARAL president Ilyse Hogue in a statement. "This decision brings us one step closer to a world in which all women are empowered to exercise their reproductive freedom—including the right to a safe and legal abortion."
Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt specifically focuses on a Texas law known as HB2, which places numerous harsh requirements on abortion providers, mandating that they must meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers—requiring clinics to undergo prohibitively expensive renovations—and that doctors who provide abortion services must have admitting privileges at local hospitals, among other provisions.
Critics of the law argue that such regulations are medically unnecessary, as abortion is one of the safest surgical procedures in existence, and that they are simply designed to force abortion providers to close their doors. The state of Texas, however, has maintained that it is merely trying to protect women's health and safety—a claim reproductive rights organizations have lambasted as a "sham."
Today is a great day for women, for our commitment to our Constitution, and for the values of freedom and dignity that all Americans hold dear.
At the heart of this debate is the "undue burden" standard established by the Supreme Court in a 1992 decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In the Casey decision, the court ruled that states had the right to regulate women's abortion access, so long as those regulations do not "have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion."
In today's majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the Texas admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements both "place a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion, constitute an undue burden on abortion access, and thus violate the Constitution."
Although the case focuses specifically on the Texas law, the repercussions nationwide will be significant. Since HB2 was signed into law, numerous other states have passed similar restrictions, forcing nearly 200 abortion providers to shut down throughout the US. The court's ruling will set national precedent; according to NBC, it "will affect similar laws in twelve other states, some now on hold because of court challenges."
However, activists caution that there is still a lot of work to be done. Conservative politicians have been limiting abortion access using a variety of methods, including bans on using insurance to pay for abortion procedures and mandatory waiting periods. The admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements are just two of many multifaceted abortion restrictions to be passed in recent years.
"The battle to protect abortion access is not over," said Dr. Willie Parker, chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health. "We will continue to fight to ensure that our physicians can fulfill their deep, conscientious commitment to providing all women who need it—in Texas and across the country—with dignified, compassionate, and appropriate reproductive health care."