Pro-choice groups sue three states over bans
Carry momentum from Supreme Court
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down safety requirements on abortion clinics in Texas, Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice groups are suing three states over their regulations, including a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The lawsuits were filed Wednesday in Alaska, Missouri and North Carolina. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights are joining Planned Parenthood in the cases.
Julie Rikelman, interim vice president of the U.S. Legal Program for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the Supreme Court made clear in its Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision in June “that states cannot pass sham restrictions in order to block access to reproductive health care.”
“Today we’re taking action to stop these politically motivated state laws, to ensure that women have safe, legal and high-quality care,” Ms. Rikelman said. “We’re continuing to defend the right of women to make decisions that affect their health, their lives, their families and their futures.”
The North Carolina law bans abortions after 20
weeks of pregnancy, which many see as the point when unborn children can feel pain. Eighteen states prohibit abortions at that stage.
The lawsuit argues that the ban is unconstitutional because it prevents women from obtaining pre-viability abortions, saying the 20-week mark is “at least several weeks prior to viability.”
Petitioners in Hellerstedt intentionally avoided challenging Texas’ ban on abortions after 20 weeks, and the case against North Carolina does not cite that decision.
John Eastman, founding director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, said that is revealing.
“If they really thought they had a winning hand here, they would have brought the challenge in the 5th Circuit against the Texas law,” Mr. Eastman said, adding that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, under which North Carolina falls, is “pretty solidly on the left.”
The regulations at issue in Hellerstedt held abortion clinics to the safety standards of ambulatory surgical centers and required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
Petitioners argued that those regulations led to the closures of several abortion clinics in Texas, especially on the more sparsely populated western half of the state. The court ruled that the health and safety benefits derived from the regulations did not outweigh the burden they imposed on women traveling greater distances to obtain abortions.
Ms. Rikelman said the regulations being challenged in Missouri are “very similar” to those struck down in Texas.
“The unjust and medically unnecessary restrictions in Missouri have reduced the number of health care centers providing abortion in that state to just one,” she said. “They’re very similar to the sham laws the Supreme Court rejected as unconstitutional.”
Planned Parenthood in St. Louis is the only abortion clinic in the state, which had 29 abortion providers in 1982.
Regulations on abortion have been struck down or blocked in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Oklahoma and Wisconsin in response to the Hellerstedt decision.
Mr. Eastman said the fate of the Missouri regulations will largely turn on the facts of the case.
“The Missouri one — it’s very fact-specific,” he said. “One of the things that triggered the concern in Whole Woman’s Health is that, because of the ambulatory care regulation, a lot of the existing abortion clinics were closing down. I think the case evidence was fairly week on the causation of that. It’s going to be very fact-specific.”
The Alaska regulations being challenged include a law requiring abortion clinics to be outfitted for “major” surgery.
Ms. Rikelman said Alaska’s geography imposes an especially harsh burden on women who must travel to other states for abortions.
“This medically unnecessary roadblock means women who need an abortion in the second trimester must travel out of state for care, a particular challenge given the geography of Alaska, if they can get that care at all,” she said. “The law imposes great financial and emotional burdens on Alaska women and their families and encloses their access to care.”
Mr. Eastman concurred that there are parallels between the court’s reasoning in Hellerstedt and the Alaska lawsuit.
“Alaska, the distance under Whole Woman’s Health, is going to be a bit of a problem,” he said.
Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said these lawsuits mark the first step toward striking down local regulations on abortion across the board.
“We’re going to fight back state by state and law by law until every person has the right to the life that they want, including people who decide to end a pregnancy,” Ms. McDonald-Mosley said.
But Mr. Eastman said conservatives still hold the trump card.
“By the time this gets to the Supreme Court, we may have a dramatically different Supreme Court,” he said.
He said the North Carolina lawsuit could ultimately backfire and lead to the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
“I would love it,” Mr. Eastman said. “Let the ACLU and Planned Parenthood be the trigger for the case that actually overrules Roe v. Wade.”
A pro-life activist stands out in a rally for Planned Parenthood, which has filed lawsuits in North Carolina, Missouri and Alaska challenging laws that it views as unconstitutional restrictions on abortion rights.