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U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Texas abortion law; U.S. bishops lament loss of 'common-sense law'

UltrasoundCaptureSmallThe U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a Texas abortion law in a 5-3 ruling, leading a U.S. bishops’ spokeswoman to mourn the loss of a “common-sense law protecting women from abortion facilities that put profits above patient safety.”

The high court ruled in Whole Women’s Health Clinic v. Hellerstedt that two provisions of a law approved by the Texas legislature in 2013 were unconstitutional. At issue were mandates that doctors performing an abortion have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital and that abortion clinics adhere to standards required of surgical centers.

The majority opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer stated that each provision “places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access,” thereby violating the 14th Amendment.

Deirdre McQuade, assistant director for pro-life communications at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, bemoaned the ruling.

“The law simply required abortion facilities to meet the same health and safety standards as other ambulatory surgical centers – standards like adequate staffing, soap dispensers, and basic sanitary conditions,” McQuade stated in a press release. “It required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and that hallways be wide enough to allow emergency personnel through with stretchers, should a life-threatening emergency arise.”

The USCCB in February filed an amicus curiae brief calling for the law to be upheld on behalf of the organization, the Texas Catholic Conference and other Christian partners.

The brief stated, “There is ample evidence in this case that hospital admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements protect women's lives and health. When such requirements are not enforced, abuses detrimental to women's lives and health arise."

When the case was first heard in a lower District Court, the law was struck down. However, an appeals court later ruled in favor of the law, saying it safeguarded women’s health.

Breyer drew from the original court ruling when writing the majority opinion, stating that the admitting-privileges requirement led to the closure of half of Texas’ 40 or some abortion clinics, creating an undue burden on women seeking an abortion. That undue burden would be compounded by the high cost of upgrading abortion clinics to surgical center status, which would force more clinics to close, Breyer wrote.

"There was no significant health-related problem that the new law helped to cure," Breyer wrote, adding later, "We agree with the District Court that the surgical-center requirement, like the admitting-privileges 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."

McQuade disagreed.

"Abortion claims the lives of unborn children, and too often endangers their mothers, as well," she said. "This ruling contradicts the consensus among medical groups that such measures protect women's lives."

Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor joined in the majority opinion, while Justices Thomas, Alito and Roberts dissented.

The court is lacking its ninth justice since the February death of Antonin Scalia. President Barack Obama has named a nominee for Scalia’s seat, but the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to schedule confirmation hearings and most likely will wait until after the Nov. 8 presidential election.