The SCOTUS Decision In June Medical Services v. Russo

This post just leapt over several others because the case was just announced.

The Louisiana Unsafe Abortion Protection Act, enacted in 2014, requires physicians performing abortions in Louisiana to have the right to admit patients to a hospital within thirty miles of the place where the abortion is performed. The law is virtually identical (as today’s opinion points out) to a Texas law that the Court held in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was unconstitutional four years ago by a vote of 5-3. In a vote that will have conservative bloggers’ heads exploding  like fireworks, Chief Justice John Roberts, who had been among the dissenters in the Texas case, joined the four liberals in ruling that the Louisiana law is also unconstitutional, while saying that he still believes that the Texas case was wrongly decided.

The decision is here. SCOTUS Blog’s coverage is here.

I won’t comment on the dissents—-there are several—because I haven’t read them yet.  (But I would bet my head that Justices Alito and Thomas essentially recycled their previous objections to Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. ) However, I wrote at length about the Texas case in 2016, and upon reviewing it, I see nothing substantially different from what I would conclude about today’s decision. in both cases, it seems clear that the state was using a pretextual safety measure to restrict abortions as much as possible.  Then I wrote, Continue reading

Four Supreme Court Decisions: Abortion, Guns, Affirmative Action, Corruption…And Ethics. Part 3: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

shrinking-number-of-abortion-clinics-in-texas

[The Supreme Court came down with four controversial and ideologically contentious decisions in June, and I apologize for taking almost a month to cover them all. One of the reasons Ethics Alarms occasionally launches a series like this one is to ensure that developing ethics stories of importance do not push important issues to the sidelines. The fact that this four part series had only finished parts 1 and 2 was an irritant to me, as well as some readers.]

In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, decided on June 27, the Supreme Court held in a 5-3 majority that two provisions of a Texas law, one requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and another requiring abortion clinics in the state to have facilities comparable to an ambulatory surgical center,  places a substantial and unconstitutional obstacle in the path of women seeking an abortion, because they constituted an undue burden on abortion access.

Life would be so much simpler if our elected officials and activists employed an adaptation of the Golden Rule, and looked objectively at issues from the other side’s point of view. This is especially true in the realm of rights.  Second Amendment absolutists insist that virtually any laws regulating who can purchase guns, when and where they can purchase them, and how and how quickly they can be purchased are efforts to whittle away the right to bear arms. They also argue that such regulations have the ultimate goal of  eliminating that right entirely, which, in many instances is the case, especially if you listen carefully to the rhetoric of the legislators proposing such measures. There is little difference from this and what anti-abortion advocates are attempting to do with laws like House Bill 2 (H. B. 2).

The bill ostensibly is designed to make abortions safer, thus protecting women’s health, just as many gun laws are promoted as safety measures. Oddly, virtually all of the supporters of the Texas bill would make abortion illegal if they could. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, just as it’s a coincidence that the authors of bills requiring potential gun owners to jump through increasingly burdensome hoops and deal with mandatory trigger locks and “safe gun” technology would gladly repeal the Second Amendment if they could. The ethical principle is the same in both matters: a right isn’t a right if legal obstacles make it difficult to exercise that right.

The question is, what’s a reasonable obstacle? Any regulation imposed on a constitutional right must not create “a substantial obstacle” and must be reasonably related to “a legitimate state interest.” The Supreme Court uses the language and logic of case precedents, which are its previous examinations of these issues and the balancing they require. One such case, though I did not find it mentioned in the majority opinion or dissents in Hellerstedt, would be the voter ID decision of many years ago, in which a strong majority ruled that the state interest in preventing fraudulent voters and maintaining the integrity of the election process justified inconveniencing those who were subjected to the extra burden of obtaining appropriate identification. In recent years, this decision has been questioned because many believe the motive behind voter ID laws is not really to protect the franchise, but to keep likely Democratic voting blocs from the polls.

Is there a difference legally between a bill that is authored with the intent to restrict the right to vote of older, poorer, and darker citizens while claiming that its sole purpose is to make sure non-citizens don’t affect the results of elections, and an identical  bill that is genuinely intended to safeguard the voting rolls, without any political motive at all? No, or at least there shouldn’t be. The Court’s job is to evaluate what the law does, not try to read the minds and hearts of those who wrote it. Justices only should try to do the latter when there is a debate over what the law says.

Ethically, however, there is a significant difference between a law using a public purpose as a sham to accomplish unethical ends, and a law with a legitimate purpose that has some negative side effects. Trying to restrict a citizen’s rights because one doesn’t respect those rights (or perhaps the citizen) is unethical.

The SCOTUS majority, in its typical examination of a balancing case like this, looked at whether there was a sufficient public safety benefit to a law that had resulted in a precipitous reduction in abortion services: Continue reading

Abortion, Ethics, and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

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The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a major abortion case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The case was brought by several Texas abortion clinics and three doctors who perform abortions in the state. They seek to strike down two restrictions in a law enacted by the Texas Legislature in 2013 that requires all abortion clinics to meet the standards for “ambulatory surgical centers,” including regulations concerning buildings, equipment and staffing, and also requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital.

Abortion rights groups argue that the restrictions are expensive, unnecessary and specifically designed to put many of the clinics out of business. In fact, the law has already caused many clinics to close. The number of abortion clinics in Texas has dropped  to about 20 from more than 40.

The Supreme Court will measure the law against the court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which held that states were not permitted to place undue burdens on the constitutional right to an abortion before the fetus was viable. Undue burdens, include “unnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion.”

Legally, it’s a tough case, like all SCOTUS cases. Ethically, it’s pretty repugnant. All of the supporters of the bill, including the drafters, are adamantly anti-abortion, though the law is ostensibly aimed a making abortions safer. While the briefs to the court argue that the restrictions were put in place to foster safety, it’s a sham argument, crafted to meet the Casey test. Make no mistake about it: the purpose of the law is to make abortions as difficult to get performed in Texas as possible. There are literally no lawmakers behind the law nor supporters of the law who don’t want abortion banned. What a coincidence! Yesterday, at the huge demonstrations in front of the Court, the groups weren’t divided into  “Safer abortions” and “More accessible abortions.” The armies were pro- and anti-abortion, and intensely so. Thus the Supreme Court is going to decide if a law designed to interfere with a Constitutional right should be upheld because it can be justified on legitimate medical safety grounds.
Continue reading