The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 on the side of abortion rights Monday in a Texas case that could have broad effects on states across the country that have passed similar abortion restrictions.
What exactly the case – Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt – will mean for them, however, will depend on a long and unpredictable maze of future litigation.
Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, called the Court's ruling Monday the "most momentous decision in a generation." Yet, she warned, there was still a lot left to fight over.
"Nothing is immediate," Nash explained. "This is not marriage equality."
The Texas case involved the application of the balancing test put forward in the 1992 Supreme Court decision Casey v. Planned Parenthood. The court sought to balance a law's burdens on women seeking abortions with the benefits of the health protections it sought to provide. What the court found in Whole Woman's Health was that the burden on women far outpaced any alleged health benefits.
At issue in the Texas case were two specific abortion restrictions. One provision of the Texas law required abortion providers to obtain admission privileges at a hospital. Another provision required abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. The Supreme Court struck down both provisions as unconstitutionally burdensome on women seeking abortions.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, was a rigorous examination of the evidence and arguments surrounding the Texas legislation. Breyer also said that in examining this and other anti-abortion laws, any uncertainty about restrictions' medical benefits should be taken into account by the courts, and not just left to the legislatures, as the Texas law's defenders had claimed.
Other states have similar restrictions in place. The question of whether they pass constitutional muster are very fact-specific and will be decided on a case-by-case basis, something the Supreme Court emphasized again Monday.
“This decision will also be critical in the many many legal challenges happening around the country, to other laws that threaten the health, safety and fundamental rights of women," Nancy Northup, the president and CEO for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which was litigating this case, said on a conference call Monday. "The impact will be felt beyond it, in places like Louisiana, Mississippi and Wisconsin, facing their own abortion access crises because of the similarly deceptive laws.”
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