Texas abortion law struck down by US supreme court

Court’s 5-3 ruling will block other states from introducing similar restrictions on abortion

The US supreme court has struck down a 2013 law in Texas setting restrictions on abortion clinics in a major victory for abortion rights campaigners.

A five-to-three decision by the eight-judge court blocks the state’s Republican leaders from enforcing some of the country’s strictest abortion laws in the most significant ruling by the court on abortion in almost a quarter of a century.

The law required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and to upgrade their facilities to hospital-like standards that could have reduced abortion clinics in Texas to about a quarter of their number.

The supreme court ruling sets a legal precedent that would make it unconstitutional for other states to introduce other abortion restrictions and has consequences for other southern states trying to row back abortion rights.


Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the court's opinion in Whole Woman's Health v Hellerstedt, said the surgical-centre requirement "provides few, if any, health benefits for women, poses a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions, and constitutes an 'undue burden' on their constitutional right to do so".

The Texas measure was signed into law in 2013 by the state's then governor, Republican Rick Perry, after being passed by the Republican-led legislature.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, based in New Orleans, mostly upheld the Texas law last year, saying that, with a few limited exceptions, it did not place an undue burden on the right to have an abortion.

Abortion clinics in the state challenged the law saying that it had caused the closure of about half the 41 clinics in Texas and threatened to reduce the number again to about 10, according to the Centre for Reproductive Rights.

Medical groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, called the restrictions unnecessary and politically motivated.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Irish-American jurist who is often a swing voter between the court's conservatives and liberals, sided with the latter in the ruling, preventing another tied decision by a court that is still awaiting the appointment of a ninth justice amid political gridlock in Washington.

He joined with liberal female justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in favour of the ruling, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissenting.

President Barack Obama has nominated Justice Merrick Garland, a DC appeals court judge, to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, but Republicans are refusing to consider or vote on his nominee leaving the court in a limbo.

The abortion ruling pivoted on the interpretation of the court’s 1992 ruling in another case, Planned Parenthood v Casey, which found that states had a legitimate interest in regulating abortion clinics but could not impose an “undue burden” on a right to terminate a pregnancy before the foetus was viable.

The supreme court legalised abortion nationwide in the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade and Republican-led states have tried to erode that ruling since then.

Abortion will be another contentious topic in US political discourse in an election year. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton supports a woman's right to choose, while Republican contender Donald Trump is backing measures that would criminalise doctors who carry out abortions.

Mrs Clinton responded to the supreme court decision, saying in a statement: “By striking down politically motivated restrictions that made it nearly impossible for Texans to exercise their full reproductive rights, the court upheld every woman’s right to safe, legal abortion, no matter where she lives.”

Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the highest elected Republican, tweeted that he was disappointed in the court's decision "but our fight to protect women's health and promote life will not stop here".

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent