Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, the most significant abortion case since Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. Here is what you should know about the case.

What was the case about?

After the Kermit Gosnell scandal created an awareness of the unsafe, unsanitary, and largely unregulated conditions in abortion clinics in America, the State of Texas passed House Bill 2. According to Alliance Defending Freedom, HB2—which became law in 2013—mandates that abortion facilities adhere to ambulatory surgical center requirements common to most outpatient facilities, and it also requires abortionists to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion facility to be able to handle emergencies when something goes wrong.  

Whole Woman's Health, an abortion provider in Texas, challenged the law in federal court, claiming it was expensive, not medically necessary, and interfered with women's health care.

What was the lower court ruling?

In June 2015, the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans disagreed with the claims of Whole Woman's Health and largely upheld the contested provisions of the Texas law. The Fifth Circuit ruled that, with minor exceptions, the law did not place an undue burden on the right to an abortion.

Why did the case go to the Supreme Court?

The plaintiffs on the side of Whole Woman's Health Women appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that when applying the “undue burden” standard of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Fifth Circuit court erred by refusing to consider whether and to what extent laws that restrict abortion for the stated purpose of promoting health actually serve the government’s interest in promoting health; and that the Fifth Circuit erred in concluding that this standard permits Texas to enforce, in nearly all circumstances, laws that would cause a significant reduction in the availability of abortion services while failing to advance the State’s interest in promoting health—or any other valid interest.

What is the federal government’s position on the case?

The Obama administration has joined in the case in full support of the abortion clinics and their doctors.

Is the law responsible for shutting down abortion clinics?

Prior to the adoption of the new restrictions by the Texas legislature, the state of Texas had 41 clinics performing abortions. But as a result of partial enforcement of the new law, Lyle Denniston says, that number has dropped to 19, and clinic operators have argued that the total number may drop to 10, statewide, if the Court were to uphold the law. The conservative justices on the Court, however, said there was little evidence that clinics have closed or would close because of the law.

What was the reaction of the justices during the oral arguments?

According to Reuters, the court's four liberal justices (Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor) indicated they believed the law intrudes on a woman's constitutional right to end a pregnancy established in Roe v. Wade. Justice Kennedy, however, expressed doubt about claims by abortion providers who asserted that the Texas law forced numerous clinics to shut down. Kennedy suggested sending the case back to a lower court to get further evidence on the law’s effect, including an assessment of the ability of existing Texas clinics to meet the demand for abortions.

What is the likely outcome of the case?

Because of the death of Justice Scalia, the best pro-lifers can hope for is that Justice Kennedy sides with the three conservative justices (Roberts, Thomas, and Alito) for a 4-4 split decision. In such situations, the ruling of the lower court is affirmed. This would mean that the Texas regulations would remain intact but that no nationwide legal precedent on whether other states could enact similar measures would be established.

When will the case be decided?

The final ruling is expected to be handed down in June.

Image credit: Americans United for Life