The US Supreme Court made a sweeping decision on abortion last week. In striking down parts of a 2013 Texas abortion law, which would force clinics to close due to unnecessary and burdensome health-and-safety standards, the five-three decision surprised many on both sides of the debate.
The Texas law, signed by then governor and now failed Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, would have closed several abortion clinics and forced thousands of women to travel hundreds of miles to access abortion services. But, in its most expansive decision in almost 25 years, the court found that the restrictions in the Texas law – which included requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and forcing clinics to meet much higher building-code standards, usually required for ambulatory surgical centres – were unacceptable.
The court decided that the requirements violated the precedent set in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v Casey decision, whereby states were prohibited from placing a (largely undefined) ‘undue burden’ on women seeking an abortion. This new decision goes some way to defining that undue burden, and will likely also lead to several other states’ restrictive laws being overturned on appeal.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that insisting abortion clinics meet the required standards for ambulatory surgical centres did more harm than good:
‘Abortions taking place in an abortion facility are safe — indeed, safer than numerous procedures that take place outside hospitals and to which Texas does not apply its surgical-centre requirements. Nationwide, childbirth is 14 times more likely than abortion to result in death, but Texas law allows a midwife to oversee childbirth in the patient’s own home.’