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Supreme Court Texas Abortion Ruling Threatens Other State Laws


At the U.S. Supreme Court today - the most sweeping abortion ruling in decades. The justices struck down a Texas law that imposed restrictions on both clinics and the doctors who perform the procedure. The court strongly rejected the argument made by abortion rights opponents that the measures improved women's health and safety. The decision could be felt beyond Texas because states across the country have passed a record number of abortion restrictions in recent years.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden joins us now to sort through this. Hi.


MCEVERS: So OK, first, the Texas law that was struck down - it had forced half of that state's clinics that perform abortions to close, and we've reported on how that's left many women waiting for weeks just to get an appointment or, you know, having to travel hundreds of miles to get to a clinic. Does this ruling mean that all those clinics that were closed can now reopen?

LUDDEN: It does, but it's not going to happen overnight. So abortion rights groups say, look; they've lost the leases for those buildings. Their licenses have expired. They have let the staff go. They've got to start fundraising, get the doctors back, find a space. It is a long process.

MCEVERS: Do other states have the same law on the books, and what would this ruling mean for them?

LUDDEN: Yes, they do, and we have actually already seen an impact. This afternoon, Alabama's attorney general announced he is dropping his defense of the state law because it's too close to the one in Texas. It forces doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Other states also like Texas require hospital-style building codes for clinics. Now, challenges to some of these laws may just play out, but abortion rights groups are confident that they will be found unconstitutional.

MCEVERS: Let's talk about some of the other abortion restrictions in the states. Does today's Supreme Court ruling in this Texas case affect them?

LUDDEN: Well, directly, not necessarily. I mean we've had, you know, more than 250 abortion restrictions in the past five years - an unprecedented wave, everything from a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, waiting periods up to three days in some states, forcing doctors to do an ultrasound of a fetus and show it to the woman. In the past year, a few states have passed bans on the most common type of abortion procedure in the second trimester - all kinds of laws.

There's no direct impact on these, and abortion opponents today are saying, we are still going to advocate for these restrictions and others in state legislatures and in courts. But abortion rights groups really see this ruling today as giving them a huge new edge in this state-by-state battle.

MCEVERS: So why do they think they have this new edge?

LUDDEN: Because this is the first time that the court has spelled out what it meant - it - when it had its last big abortion ruling back in 1992, it said, OK, you can restrict abortion but not if it poses an undue burden. And really, this whole battle since then has been to try and figure out what poses an undue burden. And today the justices said that the courts must weigh the burden a law imposes along with whatever benefits it claims to have. And it specifically said this is the court's role.

Also this ruling cites a lot of evidence about how these Texas laws do not improve women's health and safety, and this really strikes at the heart of the argument that abortion opponents have been making to push all sorts of restrictions. So abortion rights groups say this ruling supports their view that these are sham laws, as they call them, and their real aim is to close clinics. They are very confident that this is going to mark a dramatic shift and start to roll back this wave of abortion restrictions.

MCEVERS: What are some of the states where you see some of these battles happening (inaudible)?

LUDDEN: Well, we've seen them in states with Republican-controlled legislature. This has really happened since the 2010 elections when you had a wave of Republicans taking control of state legislatures and a lot of Republican governors. And those are the states with the most restrictions, and some of them have numerous restrictions every year. And every year, there's a new kind of law that's passed.

So every - you know, the abortion opponents have been trying to find new ways to restrict this procedure. And you know, they say this is a big blow to that effort, but they're not saying that they're going to stop. They're not going to give up.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.