HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Friday, October 3, 2014

Can't They Read on the Fifth Circuit?

With a highly troublesome reading of the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit managed to uphold a statute that has closed many abortion clinics in Texas, at least for the time being. The statute requires abortion clinics to meet standards for ambulatory surgery clinics, and the costs of doing so are unaffordable for the majority of abortion clinics. According to the New York Times

Thirteen clinics whose facilities do not meet the new standards were to be closed overnight, leaving Texas — a state with 5.4 million women of reproductive age, ranking second in the country — with eight abortion providers, all in Houston, Austin and two other metropolitan regions. No abortion facilities will be open west or south of San Antonio.

At issue was whether the statute imposes an "undue burden" on pregnant women seeking an abortion in Texas and is therefore unconstitutional. The district court found an undue burden because some women will have to travel 500 miles to reach an abortion clinic and therefore incur a substantial hardship from the increased time and expense of the travel. The women will have problems with child care, transportation, and getting time off from work.

The Fifth Circuit overrode the district court on the ground that Casey requires challengers to demonstrate that an abortion regulation imposes an undue burden "in a large fraction of the cases in which it is relevant." Since the women who will live great distances from remaining clinics are not a "large fraction" of pregnant women in Texas, the appellate court upheld the clinic standards regulation.

But that reading ignores half of the Casey standard. Yes, the Casey Court referred to a large fraction of the cases, but it also referred to the cases for which the regulation "is relevant." Thus, when the Casey Court struck down Pennsylvania's spousal notification requirement, it observed that abortion regulations "must be judged by reference to those for whom it is an actual rather than an irrelevant restriction." Indeed in Casey, the spousal notification requirement would have been an undue burden for less than one percent of women seeking abortions in the state.

It is not always easy to interpret Supreme Court opinions, but the Fifth Circuit's reading is not tenable. Fortunately, this is only a temporary ruling pending a full appeal before the Circuit, and the Fifth Circuit will not have the final word on this matter.

[cross-posted PrawfsBlawg and orentlicher.tumblr.com]

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