Supreme Court Strikes Down Louisiana Abortion Law Based on 'Substantial Burden' Principle

Posted: Jun 29, 2020 11:03 AM
Supreme Court Strikes Down Louisiana Abortion Law Based on 'Substantial Burden' Principle

Source: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

The Supreme Court unveiled a highly anticipated opinion in a major abortion case, June Medical Services LLC v. Russo. The litigation brings a Louisiana law before the high court, one that would require those who perform abortions to obtain admitting privileges to local hospitals, in case of a medical emergency. The case mirrors Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the court struck down a similar law in Texas. 

The makeup of the court has shifted since the aforementioned ruling, but in a 5-4 majority, the justices ruled that the Louisiana law is unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal wing of the court and Justice Gorsuch joined the conservative justices.

The opposition to these laws in Louisiana and Texas stems from the idea of an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions, which the court ultimately deemed valid in the majority opinion authored by Justice Breyer:

“In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 579 U. S. ___ (2016), we held that “‘[u]nnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion impose an undue burden on the right’ ” and are therefore “constitutionally invalid,” the justices write. “In this case, we consider the constitutionality of a Louisiana statute, Act 620, that is almost word-for-word identical to Texas’ admitting-privileges law...As in Whole Woman’s Health, the District Court found that the statute offers no significant health benefit. It found that conditions on admitting privileges common to hospitals throughout the State have made and will continue to make it impossible for abortion providers to obtain conforming privileges for reasons that have nothing to do with the State’s asserted interests in promoting women’s health and safety.”

Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh offered dissenting opinions in support of the constitutionality of Louisiana’s law. In a blistering dissent, Justice Thomas challenged the court’s rule in overturning a “legitimate state law:”

“Today a majority of the Court perpetuates its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence by enjoining a perfectly legitimate state law and doing so without jurisdiction. As is often the case with legal challenges to abortion regulations, this suit was brought by abortionists and abortion clinics. Their sole claim before this Court is that Louisiana’s law violates the purported substantive due process right of a woman to abort her unborn child. But they concede that this right does not belong to them, and they seek to vindicate no private rights of their own,” Justice Thomas writes. “...And the purported substantive due process right to abort an unborn child is no exception—it is an individual right that is inherently personal. After all, the Court ‘creat[ed the] right’ based on the notion that abortion ‘involv[es] the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy...’Because this right belongs to the woman making that choice, not to those who provide abortions, plaintiffs cannot establish a personal legal injury by asserting that this right has been violated...The only injury asserted by plaintiffs in this suit is the possibility of facing criminal sanctions if the abortionists conduct abortions without admitting privileges in violation of the law…”

Given the court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, precedent was certainly at play in the case of June Medical Services LLC v. Russo. The court’s ruling is undoubtedly a win for the abortion lobby; although the measures in Louisiana’s law are arguably common sense provisions, the court invalidated the law’s regulations on abortions based on previous judicial precedent.