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A divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that opponents said would have left the state with only one abortion clinic, in a surprise reinforcement for women’s reproductive rights.
Chief Justice John Roberts provided the crucial vote, joining the court’s liberal justices Monday in a 5-4 majority to invalidate a law requiring clinic doctors to get privileges at a local hospital. Roberts said he was bound by a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar Texas law, even though he was in dissent in that case and still disagrees with the ruling.
“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts said, writing separately from the other four in the majority.
Abortion opponents had been looking to take a first step toward overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized the procedure nationwide. They had reason for optimism given the addition of two Donald Trump appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, since the 2016 ruling.
Instead, the Republican-appointed Roberts disappointed conservatives in a blockbuster case for the third time in two weeks. He previously cast the pivotal vote to block Trump from scrapping the DACA deferred-deportation program, and he joined a 6-3 ruling that said federal law bars discrimination against gay and transgender workers.
“There is ample evidence in the record showing that admitting privileges help to protect the health of women by ensuring that physicians who perform abortions meet a higher standard of competence than is shown by the mere possession of a license to practice,” Alito wrote.
The ruling is a defeat for the Trump administration, which argued alongside Louisiana in support of the law.
“In an unfortunate ruling today, the Supreme Court devalued both the health of mothers and the lives of unborn children by gutting Louisiana’s policy,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.
Opponents said the abortion law would have left Louisiana with only one clinic, in New Orleans, and just one abortion doctor to serve the roughly 10,000 women who seek to end a pregnancy every year in the state. They said other doctors have been unable to obtain the required privileges.
The law was challenged by two unidentified doctors and the Hope Medical Group for Women, a Shreveport clinic that said it would have had to close if the measure took effect.
“To say we’re elated hardly begins to come close to what we are feeling,” Kathaleen Pittman, administrator of the clinic, told reporters.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Roberts in the majority. Breyer, who wrote the 2016 ruling, said a federal district judge was on solid ground in concluding that the burden on women seeking an abortion far outweighed the negligible health benefits from the law.
“The district court’s significant factual findings — both as to burdens and as to benefits — have ample evidentiary support,” Breyer wrote for the four.
Louisiana said it was trying to protect women from unscrupulous and incompetent abortion providers. The state told the Supreme Court some of the doctors didn’t make an adequate effort to secure hospital rights.
Roberts said neither side had asked the court to reassess the landmark 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling, which reaffirmed abortion rights and created the “undue burden” standard at the core of the latest case.
Roberts left open a path for upholding other types of abortion restrictions. He rejected contentions from abortion-rights advocates that courts should weigh the benefits of a restriction against its burdens.
“Laws that do not pose a substantial obstacle to abortion access are permissible, so long as they are reasonably related to a legitimate state interest,” Roberts wrote.
Julie Rikelman, who argued the case for the clinic and doctors, said Roberts’s reasoning was “obviously concerning” and “muddies the waters” about the legal standard.
But “this is a big victory,” said Rikelman, a lawyer at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “The court did uphold the rule of law and say that this law has to be permanently blocked.”
Louisiana’s law, enacted in 2014, required doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (48 kilometers) of the abortion facility. The measure, which carried criminal penalties, was in effect for a brief period in 2016.
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