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WASHINGTON — A Louisiana law due to take effect on Monday presents the Supreme Court with its first test on the hot-button issue of abortion.
Two doctors and a clinic challenged the law as being identical to an abortion restriction invalidated by the court three years ago. They urged the justices to block enforcement while they pursue an appeal.
The law would leave only one doctor at each clinic to perform the procedure, a limitation that "cannot possibly meet the needs of approximately 10,000 women who seek abortion services in Louisiana each year," said the Center for Reproductive Rights, representing the challengers.
Passed by the state legislature in 2014, the provision would require doctors offering abortion services to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. In 2016, the Supreme Court struck down an identical Texas law, ruling that it imposed an obstacle on access to abortion without providing any medical benefits.
The vote was 5-3, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the court's liberals — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. But since then, the court's ideological balance has shifted with the addition of two conservatives: Justices Brett Kavanaugh, who replaced the retiring Kennedy, and Neil Gorsuch, who succeeded Antonin Scalia. Scalia died before the Texas case was decided.
Five votes are required to grant a stay, so one of the court's five conservatives would have to join the four liberals for the Louisiana restriction to be blocked.
If the law went into effect even for a short time, "clinics in Louisiana that are forced to close are unlikely to ever reopen," the challengers said in their court filings. "Most clinics lack the financial resources to survive a suspension of their operations."
By contrast, they said, the state would suffer no serious harm if the law is kept on hold, because it serves no safety or health benefit.
In 2016, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals initially allowed the law to go into effect, but the Supreme Court put it on hold nine days later. After the court decided the Texas case, the challengers said the appeals court should strike down the Louisiana law because it was identical. But the appeals court ruled last September that it did not impose the same kind of burden.
"In Texas, the number of women forced to drive over 150 miles increased by 350 percent. Driving distances will not increase in Louisiana," the court said. "The cessation of one doctor’s practice will affect, at most, only 30 percent of women, and even then not substantially."
The Supreme Court ordered Louisiana to respond by Thursday to the challengers, and the court could act any time after that on the request to keep the law on hold.