The stakes and the battle over abortion rights in the South have just gotten more intense. An appeals court issued an order Wednesday that will close three of Louisiana's four abortion clinics. The law requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital within 30 miles. It's very similar to the Texas law which will be argued over before the Supreme Court next week. A lower court had temporarily blocked the Louisiana law in January.
The move by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in New Orleans, does not come as a surprise. A three-judge panel from the same circuit court upheld the Texas law in June. The judges agreed with the law's stated purpose of protecting the health and welfare of women seeking abortions. The panel hearing the Louisiana case had similar reasoning Wednesday: "We reversed the district court and permitted the law to go into effect because the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that the law placed an undue burden on a large fraction of women."
However, abortion rights advocates see it differently. "Not since before Roe v. Wade has a law or court decision had the potential to devastate access to reproductive health care on such a sweeping scale," Nancy Northup, the president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, told The New York Times.
The center's lawyers were part of the legal team which challenged the Texas law and will be arguing in front of the Supreme Court. According to Northup, the Louisiana ruling is just more of the same ― an unjust and unconstitutional attack on women’s rights and health. "Today’s ruling thrusts Louisiana into a reproductive health care crisis, where women will face limited safe and legal options when they’ve made the decision to end a pregnancy," Northup said in a statement Wednesday.
She called on the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter and allow clinics to remain open. "Whether in Louisiana, Texas, or elsewhere, women should not be forced to run to court year after year to protect their fundamental rights," Northup said.
The next step for Louisiana pro-choice groups is to ask the Supreme Court to intervene temporarily, blocking the 5th Circuit's ruling while the Texas case moves through the system this Spring. What the court decides would settle the matter in Louisiana, too. After the circuit court refrained from placing a hold on the Texas law, advocates appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted a stay until the final decision is handed down.
When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Texas case, it had all nine justices. What happens now might give an idea of what they're thinking. Just as before, the vote will likely come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy. If he sides with the court's four more progressive justices, the clinics will remain open. If he votes with the three conservatives, the tie would mean that the ruling by the circuit court would stand, and the clinics would close.
Such a scenario would not affect other regions of the country (a similar law in Alabama would need to be appealed to the 11th Circuit), but clinics in Texas and Louisiana would not see much hope in the short term. Also, if the matter is not solved in a permanent matter, it could embolden other states to act. Some 23 states have urged the Supreme Court to uphold the Texas law.
The one thing that groups like Center for Reproductive Rights and those seeking to constrict women's health care agree on is that this is a big deal. Mike Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, told the Times, "Everyone’s holding their collective breaths."