June v. Gee, The Alabama Abortion Law, and the Future of Reproductive Rights in America

 What was once considered the strictest abortion law in America has been struck down in Alabama. On October 29, 2019, Judge Myron Thompson, for the District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, ruled that the May 2019 Alabama abortion law will not go into effect.[1] The law, also known as the Human Life Protection Act, would have made abortions illegal at any stage of pregnancy, with the only exception being when a mother’s life is in danger. Under the law, doctors who perform abortions could have been sentenced to up to ninety-nine years in prison.

With a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, some believed this new law would force the Court to re-examine abortion laws in the United States and potentially overturn Roe v. Wade, a 1973 landmark Supreme Court case that protected a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.[2]

However, the battle over legal abortion is not over. The Supreme Court recently announced it will hear June Medical Services, LLC v. Gee,[3] a Louisiana case involving abortion providers and their admitting privileges to hospitals around them. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 4, 2020. While a Supreme Court decision in June would not directly overturn Roe, it could provide a pathway for limiting abortion rights.[4]

June challenges a Louisiana law[5] requiring providers to obtain admitting privileges at hospitals within a thirty-mile radius of where they perform abortions. Sometimes hospitals do not want to be involved in the politics of abortion, so admitting privileges can be difficult to obtain.[6] Texas passed a similar law in 2016, which the Supreme Court struck down in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.[7]  The State of Louisiana is asking the Court to narrow and limit the Hellerstedt decision.[8]

In the Texas law, the Court ruled that lower court should do two things: restrict abortion for a legitimate, valid purpose, and weigh the benefits of a law versus its burdens. The Court found that the Texas law did neither of these.[9]

In June, Louisiana is asking the Court to rule that an abortion restriction is valid if a lawmaker thinks that it will serve a purpose, rather than if it actually serves a purpose.[10] Louisiana is also asking the Court to distinguish Louisiana’s law from the Texas law, because Texas left more women farther away from an abortion clinic than Louisiana will.[11] However, in a study done by the Center for Reproductive Rights, there were just five abortion clinics in Louisiana when this case was filed.[12] The district court found that if the admitting privileges law went into effect, only one abortion clinic would remain open in the state of Louisiana. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that women are unduly burdened if they live more than 150 miles from an abortion clinic.[13] Louisiana is 130 miles wide and 380 miles long, which would still leave women more than 150 miles away from an abortion clinic, seeing as over 10,000 women a year seek abortions in Louisiana.

If the Court accepts Louisiana’s arguments, it would allow Louisiana to close four out of five of its abortion clinics and would significantly limit the holdings in Whole Woman’s Health, which some view as a step toward limiting Roe.[14]Depending on the Court’s decision, it could create serious obstacles for women seeking safe, legal abortions in the United States.


 

[1] Tucker Higgins, Federal Judge Halts Alabama Abortion Law Deemed the Strictest in the Nation, CNBC (October 29, 2019, 11:39 AM) https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/29/federal-court-strikes-down-alabama-abortion-law.html.

[2] Catherine Trautman, Alabama’s Abortion Was Meant to Overturn Roe. Can it?, Frontline (May 24, 2019) https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/alabama-abortion-supreme-court/.

[3] Erwin Chemerinsky, Upcoming Supreme Court Case May Create Greater Restrictions on Abortion, The Sacramento Bee (February 21, 2020) https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article240471706.html.

[4] Leah Litman, How the Court Could Limit Abortion Rights Without Overturning Roe, The Atlantic (October 8, 2019) https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/how-june-medical-services-v-gee-could-restrict-legal-abortion/599560/.

[5] La. R.S. § 40:1299.35.2.

[6] Chemerinsky, supra note 3.

[7] Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 136 S. Ct. 2292, 2300 (2016).

[8] June Medical Services LLC v. Gee Backgrounder, Ctr. for Reprod. Rights (September 2019) https://reproductiverights.org/sites/default/files/2019-09/June%20Medical%20Services%20Backgrounder_September%202019%20%28002%29.pdf.

[9] Litman, supra note 4.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Ctr. for Reprod. Rights, supra note 8.

[13] Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas Surgical Health Services v. Abbott, 743 F.3d 406, 415 (5th Cir. 2013).

[14] Ctr. for Reprod. Rights, supra note 8.

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