After Setbacks, a Surprising Win for the Abortion-Rights Movement

WASHINGTON — After months of dire warnings about the impending end of abortion access in the United States, the abortion-rights movement was handed a surprise victory by the Supreme Court on Monday. The 5-to-4 striking down of a Louisiana law was a clear win for the abortion-rights movement, and, at least for now, preserved the status quo for abortion access in the United States.

For anti-abortion activists, who have been working to restrict the procedure nationwide through a deluge of local laws, the decision was a disappointment. The Louisiana ruling was the first major abortion case decided since President Trump shifted the court’s balance of power to the right, nominating Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch to the bench. The case represented the opportunity social conservatives have been fighting for, through their support for Mr. Trump and Justice Kavanaugh: a chance to undermine past rulings favoring abortion access in America’s highest court.

That larger goal will have to wait—but perhaps not for long. The anti-abortion movement has a long pipeline of new cases that, if taken up by the Supreme Court, could present a more direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established federal protection for abortion. As of June, there were at least 16 abortion cases in federal appeals courts, the last step before the Supreme Court, according to lawyers at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Monday’s ruling strikes down a Louisiana law from 2014 that required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. As a result, the state’s three remaining abortion clinics will remain in tact. There were about 8,000 abortions performed in the state in 2018, according to state statistics.

“With this win, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state,” said Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represented the Louisiana clinic, the Hope Medical Group for Women, in Shreveport. She said the victory “vindicates what we’ve said all along, which is that the Louisiana admitting privileges law is unconstitutional.”

But the setback for the anti-abortion cause was limited. The Louisiana case was never envisioned as a way to upend Roe v. Wade: it was about furthering the goal to restrict abortion through a myriad of narrow state laws that put together could chip away at overall access.

The case also showed for the first time that Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh backed the anti-abortion cause, as hoped by longtime activists. The ruling will only further the push by social conservatives to re-elect Mr. Trump so they might have a third opportunity to nominate a justice, shifting the court’s balance fully in their favor, and in time to rule on more significant abortion cases working their way up to the Supreme Court. Many of those laws would have a far greater reach than the Louisiana case.

While legal challenges to abortion often take years to reach the Supreme Court, states have continued to put more in the pipeline. This month, Tennessee passed an abortion bill that would outlaw the procedure as early as six weeks in pregnancy without exceptions for rape or incest.

The president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, called Monday’s ruling a “bitter disappointment,” but, looking ahead to the Novemeber elections, praised Mr. Trump for appointing Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, who dissented in the decision.

“It is imperative that we re-elect President Trump and our pro-life majority in the U.S. Senate so we can further restore the judiciary, most especially the Supreme Court,” the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said. “President Trump, assisted by the pro-life Senate majority, is keeping his promise to appoint constitutionalist Supreme Court justices and other federal judges.”

The abortion-rights movement had been using Mr. Trump’s appointments of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh as rallying calls for campaigns to take Senate seats, such as those held by Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa. Monday’s ruling did not seem to have changed that strategy.

“This is great news, but the battle continues, folks,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group. “As long as Kavanaugh is on the bench, our rights are on the line—and we need your help to flip the Senate.”

Many in the legal system have been waiting for the ruling for months. Decisions in several other cases — including a ban in Texas on the most common form of surgical abortion, and a six-week abortion ban in Georgia — have been delayed pending the outcome.

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