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March 5, 2020 by

What Happened at the Supreme Court Yesterday?

“Looming” is an appropriate word to describe the atmosphere around the current abortion rights case before the Supreme Court. On March 4th, oral arguments were heard in June Medical Services V. Russo, while outside the court, pro-choice activists, along with anti-abortion protesters, rallied. 

While a decision won’t come from the court until this summer, here’s what you should know right now about the case and its implications for abortion access. 

What is June Medical v. Russo? 

This case is a challenge to a Louisiana law (Louisian Act 620, or Louisiana Unsafe Abortion Protection Act), enacted in June 2014, which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion is performed. June Medical is identical to Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, struck down in Texas in 2016, declaring that requiring admitting privileges placed an  “undue burden” on those seeking abortion care. In September 2018, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals revisited the 2016 decision and declared that, unlike in Texas, Louisiana actually needs the admitting privileges law to be in place in order to ensure the health and well-being of pregnant people. The question before the Supreme Court is whether or not Louisiana can enact Act 620, or if the law violates the right to abortion access. 

In addition to the admitting privileges aspect, there’s the question of “third-party standing” or the right of abortion providers to challenge abortion laws on behalf of a patient. The Court has allowed them to do so since 1976, on the basis that they have a close relationship with their patients—and because it’s difficult for those patients to sue while simultaneously dealing with an unintended pregnancy. 

Abortion opponents are now claiming that not only do providers not have a close relationship with patients, but that they are operating in their own self interests, and not in those of the person seeking care. The Supreme Court’s conservative judges want to eradicate third-party standing. If this happens, it may mean that the Court doesn’t have to rule on Louisiana’s law, and it would change the way abortion cases are litgated. If third-party standing remains, clinics would be able to continue suing, and the Court would have to rule on the Louisiana law. 

What are the implications of June Medical Services v. Russo for providers and patients? 

Admitting privileges are abortion restrictions disguised as “safety precautions” – they allow providers to admit patients to a certain hospital and provide services at that hospital, but they don’t actually have any medical benefit and don’t keep patients seeking abortions safe. If a provider cannot obtain admitting privileges, the abortion care facility where they work may be forced to close. If this happens in Louisiana, it means that one clinic would remain open in the entire state, making abortion care virtually impossible to access for low-income folks and for people of color. Should the Court rule in favor of Louisiana, the decision made in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt would only hold in Texas (where it originated), and admitting privileges would then be assessed on a state-by-state basis, 

Requiring that abortion providers have admitting privileges also contributes to abortion stigma, perpetuating the false idea that abortion isn’t safe, when in fact, very few people who get abortions actually need to go to the hospital after the procedure. 

Abortion stigma also comes into play in the issue of “standing.” Anti-choice activists love to portray abortion providers as being money-hungry and placing their desire for wealth over the health of their patients, and so they argue they can’t be trusted to advocate for them. (This, of course, in addition to being targeted for murder by anti-abortion terrorists.) And let’s not forget that if third-party standing is thrown out, a person seeking abortion would be left to sue on their own behalf, while simultaneously battling the stigma. 

Did anything weird happen at oral arguments? 

Yep. Jeffrey Wall, Principal Deputy Solicitor General of the United States, was in attendance. What does this mean?  Jessica Mason Pieklo, co-host of the Boom! Lawyered podcast (from Rewire.News), who also observed the arguments, clarified that while the Trump administration has nothing to do with this case that’s between abortion providers and the state of Louisiana, the Department of Justice did petition the Court for time during oral arguments. “There’s absolutely no reason for them to be there,” she says. “What having Jeff Wall there does is send a signal that the Department of Justice is exceedingly interested in abortion rights jurisprudence and litigation…the federal government is going out of its way to argue for a rollback of constitutional rights whenever possible.” 

What can you do? 

Check out this list of actions, and keep educating yourself and others on June Medical and abortion access.