by B. Jessie Hill, Judge Ben C. Green Professor of Law, Case Western Reserve University School of Law
What is at stake for reproductive rights in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, which will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this Term? In a word, everything. Whole Woman’s Health may well be the most significant abortion case in 24 years.
The Supreme Court established the “undue burden” standard for evaluating the constitutionality of abortion restrictions in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The vagueness of that standard, combined with the Court’s apparent willingness to uphold numerous restrictions in that case, opened the door for states to continually pass new and ever more restrictive regulations on abortion in the decades since Casey was decided. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has largely declined to speak further on the meaning or scope of the undue burden standard.
What’s more, states began to try a new kind of restriction – restrictions adopted in the name of protecting women’s health but really aimed at reducing access to abortion. These differed from the sorts of restrictions at issue in Casey, which were primarily laws aimed at affecting the woman’s decision making process, such as waiting periods, parental consent requirements, and informed-consent requirements. Casey was relatively deferential toward measures intended to ensure the woman’s choice was fully informed, but it did not have occasion to consider the sort of pretextual health regulations at issue in Whole Woman’s Health.
In Whole Woman’s Health, the Court will decide the constitutionality of a Texas law that imposes onerous requirements on abortion providers—namely, that doctors providing abortions have admitting privileges at a local hospital and that abortion clinics conform to the requirements for “ambulatory surgical centers,” including requirements pertaining to the physical plant, staffing, parking, and the like. These requirements are often impossible for older clinics to meet without spending enormous sums of money. Although other types of ambulatory surgery centers—clinics that provide minor surgery on an outpatient basis—are generally offered waivers or grandfathered from when new regulations are instituted, abortion providers are specifically denied grandfathering and waivers.