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Supreme Court Strikes Down Louisiana’s Restrictive Abortion Law—Here’s Why That Matters

Kara Jillian Brown

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Photo: Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla / Staff

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, struck down a Louisiana law that could have forced two of the state’s three abortion providers to close. This is the first abortion ruling to be heard by the Supreme Court since the addition of President Donald Trump’s two appointees.

The decision surrounded Act 620, a Louisiana law that required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. It was passed in 2014 but only implemented briefly in 2016 before a federal judge struck it down. A similar law was enacted in Texas in 2013, and it forced the closure of half of the state’s abortion clinics. The Supreme Court struck down this law in 2016.

“The relief around the clinic today is palpable. Everybody’s grinning ear-to-ear, behind their masks I might add,” says Kathaleen Pittman, administrator at Hope Medical Group for Women, one of the three clinics that perform abortions in Louisiana. “An unplanned pregnancy for so many is just simply a crisis. With the admitting privileges law being struck down, that doesn’t really advance us really as far as reproductive rights. We’ve not made any gains, we’ve basically maintained the status quo that allows all three clinics to remain open.”

Baton Rouge Federal District Judge John W. deGravelles ruled against the Louisiana law in 2017, writing “the record in this case demonstrates that Act 620 does not advance Louisiana’s legitimate interest in protecting the health of women seeking abortions. Instead, Act 620 would increase the risk of harm to women’s health by dramatically reducing the availability of safe abortion in Louisiana.” A New Orleans federal appeals court reversed that ruling in 2018.

Today, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold Judge deGravelles’ ruling.

“Enforcing the admitting-privileges requirement would therefore ‘result in a drastic reduction in the number and geographic distribution of abortion providers, reducing the number of clinics to one, or at most two, and leaving only one, or at most two, physicians providing abortions in the entire state,'” writes Justice Stephen Breyer in an opinion shared by the court’s three other liberal justices. “These requirements establish that admitting privileges serve no ‘relevant credentialing function’ because physicians may be denied privileges ‘for reasons unrelated to competency.'”

Chief Justice John Roberts of the court’s conservative bloc voted with the four liberal justices out of “respect for precedent” without adopting its reasoning.

Proponents of the law argued that it helped protect the safety of people receiving abortions; opponents noted that the law did not impact the safety of abortions.

“In Louisiana, it is not required by law nor is it standard practice for a physician to have admitting privileges in order to transfer a patient to another medical facility for emergency care,” wrote Judge deGravelles. “In the last 23 years, Hope Clinic, which serves in excess of 3,000 patients per year, had only four patients who required transfer to a hospital for treatment. In each instance, regardless of whether the physician had admitting privileges, the patient received appropriate care.”

Planned Parenthood shared its praise of the ruling in a series of tweets this morning. “Many patients seeking abortion in Louisiana can breathe a sigh of relief,” said the organization in a tweet. “All of us deserve to have access to sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion. Abortion is safe and legal—and we’re committed to supporting patients who make the decision to have an abortion.” There is one Planned Parenthood in Louisiana and it is not one of the three clinics that perform abortions.

Pittman is overjoyed by today’s ruling and knows it means so much for the state of Louisiana.

“The majority of women we see here are poor—70 percent of the families we work with are at or below the federal poverty level,” says Pittman. “Women of means are always going to be able to access abortion care. Hop a flight, hop in a car, go where you need to go. For so many women in Louisiana that is simply not the case. This law would truly have created an insurmountable barrier for a lot of Louisiana women. They simply would have had to continue without the care.”

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