The US supreme court defended abortion rights in a major ruling on Monday by striking down a Louisiana law placing restrictions on doctors who perform the procedure, dealing a blow to anti-abortion advocates.
The five-four ruling, with conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four liberals justices in the majority, represented a victory for Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women in its challenge to the 2014 law. The measure had required doctors who perform abortions to have a sometimes difficult-to-obtain formal affiliation called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48km) of the clinic.
US president Donald Trump’s administration supported Louisiana in the case.
Anti-abortion advocates had hoped that the supreme court, with its 5-4 conservative majority, would be willing to permit abortion restrictions such as those being pursued by Louisiana and other conservative states.
The decision, authored by judge Stephen Breyer, marked the second time in four years that the court ruled against an “admitting privileges” requirement.
In 2016, the court struck down a Republican-backed Texas law that mandated admitting privileges and required clinics to have costly hospital-grade facilities, finding that the restrictions represented an impermissible “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.
Mr Roberts dissented in that case, which was called Whole Woman’s Health vs Hellerstedt, but voted with the liberals in the Louisiana case based on the court’s tradition of adhering to its precedents, he said.
“I joined the dissent in Whole Woman’s Health and continue to believe that the case was wrongly decided. The question today however is not whether Whole Woman’s Health was right or wrong, but whether to adhere to it in deciding the present case,” Mr Roberts wrote in a separate opinion.
Several other cases involving legal challenges to abortion restrictions in other states are heading toward the judges that could provide other avenues for its conservative majority to roll back access to the procedure.
Two of Louisiana’s three clinics that perform abortions would have been forced to close if the law went into effect, according to lawyers for Hope Medical Group.
Mr Trump promised during the 2016 presidential race to appoint justices who would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling that legalised abortion nationwide. The Louisiana case marked the first major abortion dispute heard by the court since Mr Trump appointed Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Neil Gorsuch in 2017 as justices. Both ruled in favour of the abortion restrictions at issue.
The Republican president, who years earlier had supported abortion rights, attended an anti-abortion march in January and declared: “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House. ” – Reuters