Corrected 6:40 p.m. | The Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision on Monday overturned a Louisiana law restricting abortion, disappointing conservatives and elevating the issue before the November elections.
Abortion rights advocates had feared the justices would signal a new direction for the court on the contentious issue of abortion, after the Supreme Court struck down a nearly identical Texas law in 2016.
The controversial Louisiana law, which never took effect, would have required abortion providers in the state to obtain hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the clinic where they practice.
The case, June Medical Services v. Russo, is the court's first involving abortion since the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who was pivotal in decisions that protect abortion rights. It was also the first since President Donald Trump's nominees Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the court.
It mirrors a 2016 case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the court, in a 5-3 ruling, struck down a similar Texas hospital admitting privileges law.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. concurred with the new decision, agreeing that “the two laws are nearly identical” and saying the precedent must be respected.
“This case is similar to, nearly identical with, Whole Woman’s Health. And the law must consequently reach a similar conclusion,” said the plurality opinion, written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
The opinion said the law “would place substantial obstacles in the path of women seeking an abortion in Louisiana.”
“The court heard direct evidence that some of the doctors’ applications were denied for reasons that had nothing to do with their ability to perform abortions safely,” wrote Breyer, who was joined by justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Roberts agreed with the opinion’s outcome but not all of its arguments.
“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote in his concurring opinion. “For that reason, I concur in the judgment of the Court that the Louisiana law is unconstitutional.”
Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch opposed the decision.
Alito argues in his dissent that the two cases are different because of the circumstances.
“The two cases differ in a way that was critical to the Court’s reasoning in Whole Woman’s Health, i.e., the difference between a pre-enforcement facial challenge and a post-enforcement challenge based on evidence of the law’s effects,” he wrote.
Gorsuch, in a separate dissenting opinion, said the precedent of the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, which found abortion to be a constitutional right, was not an issue in this case.
“The real question we face concerns our willingness to follow the traditional constraints of the judicial process when a case touching on abortion enters the courtroom,” Gorsuch wrote. “Today, in a highly politicized and contentious arena, we prove unwilling, or perhaps unable, to resist that temptation. Either way, respectfully, it is a sign we have lost our way."
In a separate dissent, Thomas said the Roe v. Wade precedent should be overturned altogether.
“Roe is grievously wrong for many reasons, but the most fundamental is that its core holding — that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to abort her unborn child — finds no support in the text of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Thomas wrote.
Kavanaugh, in his dissenting opinion, agreed with Alito that more information is necessary to evaluate the Louisiana law.
The decision may fuel a renewed focus on abortion on the campaign trail, and it is one of many abortion cases the court may hear in the next few years. Anti-abortion groups had viewed the case as an important opportunity to chip away at the precedent set under Roe v. Wade.
Activists on both sides of the debate see an upcoming string of cases on state laws limiting abortion — including those preventing abortion after a certain number of weeks of pregnancy, restricting certain methods of abortion, or limiting abortion because of the reason for the procedure — as pivotal in deciding how much power states have to enact restrictions.
Monday's decision comes after the high court ruled with the liberal wing in two big cases this month, deciding that it’s illegal to fire someone because the person is LGBTQ and upholding a program for immigrants who were brought into the United States as undocumented children.
Advocates chimed in soon after the decision was announced.
“We’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today but we’re concerned about tomorrow,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which brought the case. “With this win, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state. But the Court’s decision could embolden states to pass even more restrictive laws when clarity is needed if abortion rights are to be protected.”
Abortion opponents lamented the decision.
“Today’s ruling reinforces just how important Supreme Court judges are to advancing the pro-life cause,” said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser. “This is evidenced by Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, who joined with Justices Thomas and Alito and dissented from today’s ruling.”
This report was revised to correctly reflect the vote in a 2016 Supreme Court decision.