This Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear a case that has the potential to dramatically affect access to safe abortions in America. The case, Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, challenges a 2013 Texas law requiring abortion clinics to meet the strict standards of ambulatory surgical centers, as well as for their doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. These restrictions, like so many similar ones over the years, have contributed to the rapidly diminishing number of abortion clinics all across the country.
The stipulations of this particular case, all supposedly in the name of women’s health, make very little sense. Abortions are an incredibly safe procedure, with a complication rate of less than one percent, so to place upon them the same standards of surgical centers performing far riskier procedures is nonsensical. The sole purpose of this law and other iterations of it all over the country is to restrict women’s access to abortions by shutting down abortion clinics that fail to meet ridiculous, arbitrary standards.
As history has shown, shutting down abortion clinics doesn’t stamp out abortion at all — it only forces women to take more desperate, dangerous measures. Before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States, up to 1.2 million women underwent unregulated, back-alley abortions that resulted in thousands of hospitalizations and deaths. Under the guise of protecting women, these regulations pose an immediate danger to women’s safety.
At the root of this issue is the problematic 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which vastly broadened states’ rights to regulate abortions so long as it did not impose an undue burden on women. The issue here is with the vague wording — though undue burden has been formally defined in case law, its application is still very much dependent on each judge. The principle is reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws that impeded African Americans from voting prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although the 15th Amendment guaranteed African Americans suffrage, many states instituted unjust obstacles like literacy tests and poll taxes, rendering it nearly impossible for African Americans to vote. Indeed, these state abortion laws are rendering it nearly impossible for women to have access to safe abortions.
The importance of this case’s outcome cannot be overstated. The very right of women to retain autonomy over their bodies is at stake. The death of Antonin Scalia, who was fiercely opposed to abortions, could have considerable ramifications on this decision, both for better and for worse. If the eight justices are evenly split on this case, the Texas law remains in effect. This case is in the hands of the more moderate justices, like Anthony M. Kennedy, who could swing the vote one way or another. Not since Roe v. Wade has abortion been so hotly contested in America. Hopefully the court can learn from the past and err on the right side of history this time.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 29 print edition. Email Annie Cohen at [email protected]