U.S. Supreme Court Decision Spells End Of Hotly Debated Abortion Requirements In Missouri And Kansas

Jun 29, 2020
Originally published on June 29, 2020 10:52 am

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday striking down a Louisiana abortion restriction means similar provisions in Missouri and Kansas are no longer enforceable.

In a 5-4 decision, the court found unconstitutional a Louisiana law that requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Had the court upheld the Louisiana law, the state would have been left with just one abortion clinic.

Both Missouri and Kansas require abortion physicians to have hospital admitting privileges, although the Kansas requirement was blocked by a Shawnee County judge and seems unlikely to survive the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision in 2019 that a woman’s right to an abortion is rooted in the Kansas Constitution.

Meanwhile, Missouri’s admitting-privilege requirement has survived several court challenges, most recently when U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes in Kansas City refused to block the law.

Wimes' decision in February 2019 rejected Planned Parenthood’s argument that the law constituted an “undue burden” on women’s constitutional right to an abortion.

His ruling came after Senior U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs in Kansas City had previously blocked the law, finding that women’s abortion rights were “being denied on a daily basis, in irreparable fashion.”

But after then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley appealed Sachs’ ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a three-judge panel of that court found that Sachs had failed to weigh the law’s benefits against its burdens and sent the case back to the trial court for reconsideration.

By then, Sachs had stepped aside and the case was reassigned to Wimes.

Wimes’ ruling left Missouri with just one abortion provider, in St. Louis, which the state later sought to strip of its abortion license. That effort failed after an administrative law judge last month ruled that the state was wrong not to renew its license.

Missouri was the first state in the nation to require doctors providing abortion services to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. It imposed the requirement in 1986.

The state argued the requirement was necessary to protect the health and safety of women seeking abortions. Abortion rights supporters claimed that it was medically unnecessary and that abortion providers are often unable to obtain hospital admitting privileges.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Louisiana requirement came four years after the court, in a 5-3 decision written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, struck down the same restriction in Texas.

In that 2016 case, Breyer wrote that the admitting-privilege 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.”

Since that ruling, however, two conservative judges have been appointed to the court by President Trump — Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — and the high court's willingness to entertain a case involving the same issue just a few years later sparked concerns among abortion rights supporters that it planned to overturn its Texas decision.

But Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., while not agreeing with its reasoning, cast his lot with the court’s liberals after concluding that respect for precedent compelled him to side with them.

Roberts had dissented in the Hellerstedt case.

Abortion rights supporters were quick to hail today's decision but cautioned that abortion rights remain under attack.

“After today’s decision, we can breathe a sigh of relief. The Supreme Court sent a clear message to politicians across the country: Stop trying to take away access to safe, legal abortion,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement.

“But our fight is far from over,” she said. “While today is a victory for Louisianans, we must remember that we are in a world where politicians have pushed basic health care almost out of reach for millions of Americans, and where your ability to access abortion is still determined by where you live, how much money you make, and in this country that effectively also means the color of your skin."

Brandon Hill, president and CEO of Overland Park-based Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which operates clinics in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, said the ruling was a cause for celebration, "but the fact that we're even fighting these laws — ones that, again, the highest court in the country says are virtually absent of any health benefit — is mind-blowing."

"Across the four states we serve, politicians have focused for years on similar methods to block care under the guise of patient safety. Today's ruling is a rallying cry for change: patients deserve better than smoke and mirrors," Hill said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General’s office, which is charged with defending Missouri laws when they’re challenged in court, said it would not be commenting on the Supreme Court’s decision.

Missouri has some of the strictest abortion laws in the country. In 2019, Gov. Mike Parson signed a law criminalizing abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy. The law carved out an exception only for a “medical emergency,” defined as a situation in which the pregnant woman faces death or “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”

It contained no exceptions for incest or rape.

Sachs blocked the law a day after it was supposed to take effect. Planned Parenthood had argued that the law would subject patients to “significant and irreparable constitutional, medical, emotional, and other harms for which no adequate remedy at law exists.”

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