Law & the Courts

Supreme Court Temporarily Suspends Louisiana Abortion Restrictions

Signs outside the Supreme Court during the March for Life in Washington, D.C., January 18, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily stayed a Louisiana law that abortion-rights advocates say would have left only one provider of the procedure in the state.

The majority of five justices included Chief Justice John Roberts, who leans conservative but has become the closest thing to a swing vote in controversial cases since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who frequently broke ties on the divided court.

The Louisiana’s Unsafe Abortion Protection Act requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a restriction that has drawn the ire of abortion advocates, who say it puts an unreasonable burden on physicians and women seeking the procedure. A federal judge in Louisiana blocked the law in 2017, but Louisiana appealed the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s ruling, sending the case to the Supreme Court.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh dissented from the ruling to grant a temporary stay of the statute. The court will likely hear a challenge in the fall, during its next term.

“Louisiana is poised to deny women their constitutional right to access safe and legal abortion with an admitting-privileges requirement that every judge in the proceedings below — the District Court, the panel majority and the dissenters — agrees is medically unnecessary,” wrote the clinics and physicians challenging the law in their application to the Supreme Court.

Louisiana has only three clinics with a total of four doctors who perform abortions, only one of whom has hospital admitting privileges. If the remaining three doctors could obtain admitting privileges, “then the three clinics could continue providing abortions,” Kavanaugh wrote in his dissent. “And if so, then the new law would not impose an undue burden.”

Abortion advocates celebrated the ruling, calling it a step forwards for women’s rights, while pro-life leaders excoriated the decision, which they said provides opportunities for more unsafe abortion procedures.

“The Supreme Court has stepped in under the wire to protect the rights of Louisiana women,” said the president of the abortion-rights-backing Center for Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northup, in a statement.

“With tonight’s decision, the Supreme Court continues a disappointing trend of avoiding their responsibility on decisions concerning abortion,” said president of the Susan B. Anthony List Marjorie Dannenfelser, adding that the law protects women from the “abortion lobby, which repeatedly puts profit over health and safety standards.”

“The abortion industry, over the past four decades, has fought against every common-sense health standard,” said Benjamin Clapper, executive director for Louisiana Right to Life. “This is just another example of the extreme lengths the abortion industry pursues to protect abortion-on-demand.”

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