The U.S. Supreme Court is stepping back into the high-profile fight over abortion, agreeing Friday to review a Texas law that could force more than three-quarters of the state's abortion clinics to shut down.
A victory for Texas would boost efforts in at least a dozen other states to seek similar limits. No matter how the court rules on the issue, it's likely to be one of the most important abortion cases in 25 years — a hot-button social issue on the court's agenda in the middle of a presidential campaign.
"This is really going to be a defining moment for the Supreme Court in terms of whether or not we're going to continue to have the strong core protections that we've been seeing," said Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Passed in 2013, the Texas law imposes two requirements. Clinics providing abortion services must meet the same medical standards as ambulatory surgical centers. And doctors providing abortion services must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
Supporters said the measure was intended to protect the health of patients.
"We wanted to make sure that not only those that were taking care of women's healthcare were qualified and had admitting privileges and that the facilities they were operating in had good, commonsense improvements," said Sen. Kelly Hancock, one of the law's sponsors.
Since the law was passed, the number of clinics providing abortion services in the state dropped to 19 from 42. That number could fall to ten if the Supreme Court upholds the law.
Opponents say its passage had nothing to do with protecting women's health.
"The purpose of this bill is to shut down clinics so that there's fewer abortions taking place in Texas, and so women have less access to abortion care," says Dr. Bhavik Kumar of the Whole Women's Health Clinic in Ft. Worth.
A federal court trial judge declared the law invalid, ruling that it would not advance the state's interest in promoting women's health. He applied the standard formulated by the Supreme Court, that abortion restrictions cannot impose "an undue burden" on a woman's access to the procedure.
But the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in largely reversing the trial judge, said a restriction must be upheld if "any conceivable rationale exists" for imposing it.
If that standard is allowing to persist, women's groups say, courts would be forbidden to consider whether an abortion law actually would promote women's health in deciding whether it imposed an undue burden.
The justices will hear the case early next year, with a decision expected by late June.