Why the Supreme Court Abortion Ruling Is a Big F***ing Deal

A police officer outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on March 16. Jim Bourg/Reuters

The Supreme Court's decision announced on Monday to overturn a Texas law limiting access to abortion clinics is a massive win for advocates of legal abortion—not just in Texas but across the country.

The case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt,involved a Texas law that set a number of requirements for clinics performing abortions, including a mandate that they be built with all the provisions that are available in full-scale surgical centers. In a very strong 5-3 opinion, the court said that the law imposed an "undue burden" on women seeking to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion.

The court did not accept Texas's argument that the law was not an anti-abortion statute but was simply designed to promote women's health. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the authors were dissembling and that the law "provides few if any health benefits for women." The court echoed in great detail the arguments of legal abortion advocates that the statute was designed simply to limit women's ability to exercise their constitutional right. The number of clinics in Texas performing abortions has dropped from 42 to 19 since the statute was enacted in 2013, forcing some women to drive hundreds of miles to have the procedure performed. In her concurrence, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: "It is beyond rational belief that [the Texas law] could genuinely protect the health of women."

The ruling struck down a decision by a federal appeals court that the law passed constitutional muster. A federal district court had struck down the statute.

There had been concern on both sides of the abortion issue that the Supreme Court might deadlock on the issue, as there are only eight members of the court following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February and the intransigence of Senate Republicans to consider President Barack Obama's nominee to replace him, Merrick Garland. But Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's Democratic appointees in the majority ruling. Only Justice Clarence Thomas upheld the law in its entirety.

Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts were concerned with parts of the law and would have sent it back to the lower courts to resolve. They did not offer a vigorous defense of the statute, certainly not the kind of blistering dissent that Scalia might well have provided were he alive.

In an election year, the ruling will likely have little effect. Hillary Clinton was quick to praise the ruling as "a victory for women." Donald Trump, who used to favor legal abortion and now says he's pro-life, may find himself in an interesting position. Despite his newfound opposition to legal abortion, Trump has continued to praise Planned Parenthood. He has hailed its "wonderful" work, save for abortion services, while decrying its receiving of federal funds. The presumptive GOP nominee has not weighed in on the Texas law and the many restrictions it imposes on clinics.

Senator John Cornyn, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court, blasted the decision on Monday. "Today's ruling sets a dangerous precedent for states like Texas, which the Constitution makes clear should be free to pass laws that are in the best interests of our citizens," he said. "Commonsense requirements that abortion clinics be held to the same standards as other medical facilities put the health of the patient first, and today's decision is a step back in protecting the well-being of mothers across our state."

The ruling leaves opponents of legal abortion having to reassess one of their main strategies. The Supreme Court opened the door to state restrictions on abortion with the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision of 1992. Many laws have emerged in the years since, including ones that imposed waiting periods on women before they can have an abortion, or required them to watch graphic videos depicting the killing of a fetus. But Monday's ruling seems to have forestalled what had been a productive avenue for anti-abortion advocates. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Texas law, also has jurisdiction over Mississippi and Louisiana, two states that have enacted statutes that are similar to Texas's. The court underscored today that a law that limits abortion access must have a rational purpose and not impose an undue burden on women. But "Casey requires courts to consider the burdens a law imposes on abortion access together with the benefits those laws confer," the Supreme Court's opinion notes.

The ruling comes 43 years after another ruling about a Texas statute, Roe v. Wade, proclaimed a constitutional right to abortion. Today's ruling is not nearly as significant a decision. But in the decades since Roe v. Wade, it's one of the most significant decisions when it comes to defining what states can and cannot do in regulating the procedure.