Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Following last week's argument in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, commentators have focused on the impact of the women on the Court. One area where Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan made their presence felt was on the quality of the Court’s discussion of women’s health. Collectively, they (with significant help from Justice Breyer, and even some from Justice Kennedy) probably spent more time considering the health impacts of Texas HB2 than the entire Texas legislature did when it passed the law.
And it was appropriate that they did. Since it would be unconstitutional for Texas to pass a law with the purpose of preventing women from having abortions, the Texas Solicitor General had to argue that HB2 was enacted to protect women’s health. Petitioners have maintained that by delaying or preventing women’s access to abortion, the law actually increases the health risks that women face.
The challenged law imposes two requirements: (1) that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles and (2) that facilities that provide abortions meet the requirements of an ambulatory surgical center (ASC). Collectively, the requirements will result in closure of three-quarters of Texas’s abortion clinics (About half of Texas’s 40 clinics closed when the admitting privileges requirement went into effect. The ASC requirement has been stayed).
The Texas SG tried to make broad, conclusory statements that the additional requirements would make abortion provision safer, but the Justices pushed back asking the SG why the requirements were necessary given the nature of abortion procedures – medical abortion just requires women to take two pills and early surgical abortion does not even involve general anesthesia - and the procedures’ extremely low complication rates.
Justices Sotomayor questioned the necessity of having a woman “travel 200 miles or pay for a hotel” to take 2 pills for a medical abortion in an ambulatory surgical center. When the Texas SG later tried to argue that the ASC requirement was necessary in case complications arose, Justice Ginsburg shut him down, noting that if complications arose from a medical abortion, they would happen several hours later after the woman returned home.
The Justices also took note that the risks associated with abortion are extremely low, less than 1% (the risks of a colonoscopy are 28 times greater) and did not justify the ASC or admitting privileges requirement. Justice Sotomayor pointed out that surgical abortion is essentially the same medical procedure as the treatment women receive following a miscarriage, but Texas has not imposed additional requirements for treatment of miscarriages. After Justice Ginsburg noted that early stage abortion is “among the most safe” and “least risk procedures” and that child birth is much riskier, the Texas SG made the mistake of trying to disagree with her. Justice Ginsburg shot back, “Is there really any dispute that childbirth is a much riskier procedure than early stage abortion.”
Several Justices also showed real concern about the law’s negative impact on women’s health. Justice Kennedy noted that the law appeared to be increasing surgical abortions as opposed to medical abortions in Texas, which “may not be medically wise.” Justice Sotomayor expressed concern that the lack of access to legal clinical care would bring us back to the time before Roe v. Wade, where women were forced to get abortions from unlicensed providers. And, Justice Breyer questioned Texas’s health purpose given evidence that lack of accessibility will increase self-induced abortions and the risk of “many more women dying.”
The Justices also emphasized the need to consider how the law affects access to care for all Texas women. Justices Kagan and Ginsburg pushed back on the Texas SG’s statement that the law would leave abortion facilities in metropolitan areas. Justice Kagan pointed out that in 2012 less than 100,000 women lived more than 150 miles from an abortion provider, and as a result of the law 900,000 women would live further than 150 miles from a provider and 750,000 further than 200 miles. Justice Ginsburg emphasized that in determining women’s access to abortion under Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “the focus must be on the ones who are burdened and not the ones who aren’t burdened.” Thus, the Court’s inquiry should not focus on the women who live in Austin or Dallas but “the women who have the problem who don’t live near a clinic.”
Many of the questions posed by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer revealed skepticism about Texas’ asserted health justification for the requirements. In responding to questions about availability of services, the Texas SG stated that women in West Texas could obtain abortions in New Mexico. Justice Ginsburg questioned how Texas could rely on women traveling to facilities in New Mexico, which does not impose admitting privileges or ASC requirements.
The Texas SG was repeatedly questioned about the lack of evidence of a need for the new restrictions and the fact that Texas did not act to impose similar requirements on much riskier procedures. He consistently responded that the Texas legislature can set much higher standards on facilities that provide abortion than facilities providing much riskier procedures. Then, Justice Kagan asked the question that was on everyone’s mind, “I just want to know why Texas would do that?”
Wednesday’s argument is a good indication that at least half of the Justices understand and take the impact of the Texas law on women’s health and access to abortion seriously. Hopefully, that understanding and respect for women’s health will be reflected in the Court’s decision.