by Eric J. Segall, Kathy and Lawrence Ashe Professor of Law at Georgia State University College of Law. Follow Professor Segall on Twitter @espinsegall.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in an historic abortion case involving two Texas laws that, if upheld, will make it much more difficult for poor women in Texas to obtain abortions. The death of Justice Scalia has little effect on the outcome of this case. There are likely three conservative votes to uphold the laws (Roberts, Alito, and Thomas) and four liberal votes to invalidate the laws (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan). If Justice Kennedy votes with the liberals, the laws will be struck down 5-3 (instead of 5-4 had Scalia remained on the bench). If he votes to uphold the laws, the decision of the lower court sustaining both laws will be affirmed by a 4-4 vote (though the case would not have national implications).
One of the Texas laws requires clinics that perform abortions to have the physical plans of ambulatory surgical centers while the other requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Before these laws went into effect, there were over 40 clinics in Texas where women could secure a safe abortion. If these laws are upheld, the number will be less than 10. Women in West Texas will have to drive over 150 miles to obtain an abortion should the Supreme Court affirm the lower court.
The legal standard currently in effect for abortion laws is whether they pose an “undue burden” on the right to an abortion. There can be little dispute that these laws do exactly that (in fact that is their very purpose). As the Texas Solicitor General announced shortly after the laws were passed:
These laws were not enacted solely to advance the State’s interest in maternal health. They were also enacted to advance the State’s interest in promoting and protecting fetal life. A law that is enacted to advance the State’s interest in the life of the unborn need not be medically necessary to survive constitutional challenge.
Although Texas does argue that both laws further women’s health by making abortion clinics safer and by ensuring doctors have access to a hospital should something go wrong, both rationales are patently absurd. As Judge Posner held in a case striking down the same admitting privileges law in Wisconsin, and as many other folks have pointed out, abortion is a much safer medical procedure than many other outpatient procedures, including colonoscopies and liposuction, yet nether Wisconsin nor Texas requires doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals when performing those services.