Supreme Court takes up 1st big abortion case of Trump era

Now the matter falls to the Supreme Court to decide, and after Wednesday's oral arguments it remains unclear how Roberts - who is viewed as a potential swing vote - might rule on the matter.

The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority appeared sympathetic on Monday toward a bid by President Donald Trump's administration to reinforce its power to quickly deport illegal immigrants without court interference in a politically charged election-year case on one of Trump's signature issues. Trump has tightened the conservative grip on the court with his 2018 appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who replaced Kennedy, and his 2017 appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The justices on Wednesday are examining a Louisiana law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a group that supports keeping abortion legal, spoke exclusively with ABC News on the implications of the law, which requires abortion providers have admitting privileges with a nearby hospital, referring to it as "a backdoor way to eliminate abortion access with the sole goal of closing clinics". The court in the Texas case found there was no benefit to the women the law was ostensibly meant to help and struck it down as an "undue burden" on women's right to an abortion in violation of the Constitution. The abortion clinic in Shreveport at the heart of the case reported transferring just four patients to a hospital out of roughly 70,000 it has treated over 23 years, Justice Elena Kagan noted.

In more than 14 years as chief justice, Roberts has generally voted to uphold abortion restrictions, including in the Texas case four years ago.

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied on a cool and sunny day in the United States capital as the nine justices heard arguments in Shreveport abortion clinic's appeal of a lower court ruling that upheld a restrictive Louisiana abortion law.

Julie Rikelman, litigation director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, urged the court to follow the Texas result.

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Three of the court's four liberal justices are women - the bench now has three women in total - and all had tough questions for Louisiana's attorneys in the case. A ruling in favor of the state's argument that the providers lack the right to sue in these circumstances, known as third-party standing, would be a devastating blow to abortion-rights advocates since doctors and clinics, not individual women who want abortions, file most challenges to abortion restrictions. Roberts asked Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill.

And, they argue, it could eliminate abortion access throughout the state.

"No", Murril answered, "I think that a state could certainly show greater benefits, depending on what their regulatory structure is and what the facts are on the ground in that state".

"We have protests constantly - they don't want to deal with the hassle", she said, referring to many hospitals' reluctance to deal with protesters and the bureaucratic burden of doctors' applications for a privilege that is very rarely used.

The Trump administration also argued in court papers that the high court could overrule the Texas case if necessary.

Justice Stephen Breyer said that for 40 years the court has upheld the principle that doctors could go to court to protect the rights of their patients.

That vote brings him into conflict with his position in the Texas case, when Roberts was among the three dissenting judges who concluded that an admitting privileges requirement did not represent an undue burden. In a 2-1 ruling, the court said Louisiana's law would present far less of an obstacle than the Texas law would have. A Supreme Court ruling in favour of Louisiana's law could prompt other states to pass similar statutes. A decision should come by late June.

  • Sonia Alvarado