Supreme Court to take up Louisiana law limiting access of abortion doctors

The law would leave only a single doctor to perform abortions in the entire state, women's groups say.

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Friday that it will decide the fate of a Louisiana law that women's groups said would leave only a single doctor to perform abortions in the entire state.

The measure would require any doctor offering abortion services to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. It was opposed by two Louisiana doctors and a clinic, Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport.

Kathaleen Pittman, the clinic administrator, said in a statement after the court agreed to hear the case that the state “has tried everything under the sun to decimate access to abortion care.”

“The situation here is already dire, and this law would be the last straw for most of the remaining clinics," she said. "We’re hopeful that the court will recognize how devastating this law would be for women in our state.”

It's the first major abortion case the high court will face since Trump-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed a year ago this week to succeed Anthony Kennedy, who voted to uphold Roe v. Wade. The court will hear arguments in the case early next year, likely making a decision by late June.

The Louisiana Legislature enacted the law in 2014, before the makeup of the Supreme Court changed. Unlike an even more restrictive law the state passed earlier this year, this one was not intended to provoke the court into overturning the Roe decision. But it would make abortions harder to get.

By a 5-4 vote in February, the Supreme Court blocked enforcement of the measure, agreeing with the challengers that it should remain on hold while the justices decided whether to hear and decide the case. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four liberals in approving the stay request.

In dissenting from the February order, Kavanaugh wrote that because Louisiana said it would put the law into effect gradually, he would have waited to see how many doctors were actually able to get hospital admitting privileges. The two sides in the case offered "competing predictions" about its effect, he said.

The challengers said the law was identical to a requirement in Texas that the Supreme Court struck down three years ago. In that 2016 ruling, the court said Texas imposed an obstacle for women seeking access to abortion services without providing them any medical benefits. Kennedy joined the majority in that case, but supporters of abortion rights fear that Kavanaugh will not be the ally that Kennedy was.

Lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights, representing the Louisiana challengers, said the law's burdens on access to abortion would be worse than those imposed by the Texas law, which forced about half that state's abortion clinics to close. The Louisiana law would shut down every clinic in the state but one, "leaving only one doctor to care for every woman seeking an abortion," the lawyers said.

A federal district court judge ruled in 2017 that the law was likely unconstitutional and issued a stay, blocking its enforcement. But a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted to lift the stay. In a 2-1 ruling, the court said Louisiana's law would present far less of an obstacle than the Texas law would have. Less than one third of Louisiana women seeking an abortion would face even the potential of longer wait times, the court said.

The appeals court concluded that the Louisiana law would not impose an "undue burden" on access to abortion, which has been the Supreme Court's key legal test for challenges to abortion restrictions for almost three decades.

The Supreme Court reimposed the stay in February.

Reproductive rights advocates said they hoped the high court would rule in their favor, as it did in the similar Texas case several years ago.

“It’s no accident that on the anniversary of Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation, the anti-choice majority on the Supreme Court is taking up a case challenging our fundamental reproductive freedoms. This is their playbook: stack the federal bench with anti-choice judges to gut reproductive rights," Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said.

Jeanne Mancini, the president of the anti-abortion group March for Life, said Friday that the Louisiana law takes "concrete steps to protect women in that state."

“Abortion activists are more than willing to lower the bar on women’s health in order to expand abortion, but stricter clinic regulations are in the best interest of women," Mancini said.

CORRECTION (Oct. 4, 11:32 a.m. ET). An earlier version of this article misstated the year when the Louisiana abortion law was passed. It was in 2014, not 2016.

Elizabeth Chuck contributed.