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Supreme Court Strikes Down Abortion Restrictions In Texas

Abortion rights supporters and opponents rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 20. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.)

The Supreme Court has overturned a Texas law requiring clinics that provide abortions to have surgical facilities and doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The law was predicted to close many clinics and further reduce availability of abortion in Texas; the court has ruled the law violated the Constitution.

With a 5-3 decision in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, the court reversed a decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had upheld the law. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, while Anthony Kennedy joined the liberal justices in the majority.

The case involved a challenge to a Texas law regulating abortion. The law in question has two key provisions, as NPR's Nina Totenberg reported last fall:

"First, it requires that all doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion takes place. But because the complication rate from abortions is so minuscule, most abortion providers cannot meet the minimum number of admittances that hospitals require before granting privileges.

"Second, the law requires that abortion clinics be retrofitted to meet elaborate statutory hospital-grade standards, including wide corridors, large rooms and other expensive construction and equipment standards that do not apply to all other outpatient facilities where other surgical procedures like liposuction and colonoscopies take place.

"The provisions also apply to doctors who prescribe medication-induced abortions; such procedures involve giving the patient two pills and sending her home."

The state said the provisions protect women's safety; medical groups like the American Medical Association and the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say the law in fact impedes safety, Nina has reported.

Opponents of the law said the restrictions would block three-quarters of the state's clinics from providing abortion services, meaning 900,000 women of child-bearing age would need to drive more than 300 miles round-trip to reach a clinic that provides abortions.

The 5th Circuit Court of Apppeals upheld the law. As Nina reported, the court "said that it did not consider a 300-mile round trip for nearly 1 million women of reproductive age to be a substantial burden because that number was 'nowhere near' a large fraction of the state's 5.4 million women of childbearing age."

The Supreme Court rejected that decision, and ruled that both provisions constituted an undue burden, and are therefore unconstitutional.

In the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer writes that the restrictions "vastly increase the obstacles confronting women seeking abortions in Texas without providing any benefit to women's health capable of withstanding any meaningful scrutiny."
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.