Nancy Northup is president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
On the first day of its new term, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared its docket of one hot-button social issue by declining to hear seven cases involving same-sex marriage — only to find another highly controversial matter hurtling its way.
That same day, the court received an emergency appeal from the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of women’s health-care providers, asking the justices to reinstate an injunction blocking a Texas law that has left no more than eight abortion clinics in the state — down from more than 40 before the law was passed last summer.
It won’t be the last time this case — or one like it — reaches the justices.
Since 2011, state politicians have enacted more than 200 restrictions that make it harder for women to obtain safe, legal abortion care. That’s more restrictions in the past three years than were enacted in the previous decade.
Passed under the pretense of regulating safety standards, the true purpose of these laws is to hollow out Roe v. Wade’s recognition of women’s constitutional right to decide for themselves whether to end a pregnancy, as well as the legal protections afforded by that historic ruling.
This new tactic seeks legitimate cover for the illegitimate goal of denying significant numbers of American women access to safe, legal, essential reproductive health care. The question is: Will courts, especially the Supreme Court, let them get away with it?
On Oct. 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit did just that by lifting an injunction blocking the most extreme provisions of Texas’s sweeping anti-abortion law. Now, not a single abortion clinic remains open in the state west or south of San Antonio.
Women facing an unintended or severely complicated pregnancy who don’t live in one of the state’s four major metropolitan areas are left with round trips of hundreds of miles to the nearest abortion clinic. Some would face a round trip of 1,000 miles to get an abortion in their home state. Too many of these women will face a choice between carrying to term or seeking potentially dangerous abortion options outside the law. Not since before Roe v. Wade has a law or court decision resulted in the denial of abortion care on such a sweeping scale.
But that’s not to say other states haven’t been trying to keep up. In Virginia, a spate of strict building regulations targeting abortion providers was rammed through — over the vocal protests of concerned citizens and members of the state’s own medical advisory panel. Fortunately, a new state health commissioner is working to amend the regulations and lessen their harmful impact.
Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana and Wisconsin have passed similarly underhanded laws designed to shutter most, if not all, clinics by requiring any physician who provides an abortion to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital — a measure opposed by the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists because it has nothing to do with its ostensible purpose of improving patient safety. In Mississippi, the state’s sole remaining clinic hangs on through a court order blocking a similar restriction.
The 5th Circuit’s decision notwithstanding, courts that have considered these laws have overwhelmingly blocked them. A federal district judge in Alabama struck down that state’s admitting-privileges requirement, deeming unconstitutional the obstacles it created for women seeking abortion care — and noting that, far from protecting women’s health, the law would “create a significant risk that some women would pursue dangerous, illegal abortions.”
In a 7th Circuit ruling upholding a preliminary injunction against Wisconsin’s admitting-privileges law, Judge Richard Posner — an appointee of President Ronald Reagan — wrote that the medical grounds for the law were “feeble” and that allowing the law to take effect would have “wreaked havoc” on abortion access across the state.
These decisions — and many others like them — stand in stark contrast to the one issued last week by the 5th Circuit, which blatantly ignores reams of scientific and medical evidence and fails to recognize the significant harm these restrictions will inflict.
The resulting sharp disparities in women’s ability to obtain abortion care are becoming troublingly reminiscent of the time before Roe, when access depended entirely on where a woman lived or her ability to travel to one of the few states where abortion was safe and legal.
As the Supreme Court opens its session, justices will soon have to resolve additional sharp disparities — between the many courts that have sought to shore up the protections of Roe against politicians’ underhanded attempts to render them meaningless, and those that have facilitated the denial of essential women’s health care to millions.
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