By Koria Stanton
Two weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that sought to restrict abortion access under the auspices of health and safety. The 5-3 ruling in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt not only affirmed women’s rights, but also sent a clear message about “clinic shutdown” laws. The ruling will likely spur action on both sides of the abortion question.
The Court decided two issues related to a Texas law that did not place restrictions on a woman’s right to obtain abortion services, but instead limited how abortion clinics and staff were licensed. By placing severe restrictions on clinics and doctors who perform abortions, Texas had essentially eliminated the availability of abortion services and thus, a woman’s right to pursue an abortion.
The majority opinion relied in part on a 1992 decision of the Court. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, the Court ruled that if the “purpose or effect” of a law “is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion,” then the law is unconstitutional. The provisions of the Texas law in question in Whole Women’s Health were found to violate the U.S. Constitution because they failed to offer any justifiable medical benefit. Both were deemed to place undue burdens on a woman’s access to abortion.
The ruling, however, is not likely to spark any changes to abortion practices in Washington, D.C.
The District has the least restrictive abortion laws in the United States. Unlike Texas, Washington, D.C. abortion clinics need not be licensed as a type of surgical center and an abortion does not need to be performed by a licensed physician – let alone one with admitting privileges at a hospital. Additionally, public funds are available for a woman seeking termination of a pregnancy due to rape or incest.
It has been nearly forty-five years since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, but the ongoing controversy demonstrates that women’s rights are still being attacked in jurisdictions across the United States. Even as the Court affirmed women’s rights, there is some irony in an analogy used by Justice Breyer in the Court’s opinion.
Early in the majority opinion, while discussing claim preclusion, the Court justifies the suit against Hellerstedt, despite its appearance as successive litigation. Therein, a parallel is drawn to prisoners filing suit for prison conditions violations.
The Court’s use of prison conditions is a reminder of the larger battle for women’s rights in 2016. Despite over a century of progress, women are still imprisoned by legislation that presumes to dictate the choices they are allowed to make in regard to their bodies, medical care, and personal decisions that will ultimately affect their lives and futures.
While the pro-life movement may not condone or appreciate it, Washington, D.C. has an open door policy for women seeking assistance with an abortion. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over half of all abortions performed in the District are for out-of-state residents. Even without restrictive ordinances and statutes like those proposed in Texas, Washington, D.C. is able to offer a service to women, for women, without dire consequences.
The majority justices of the Court needed only to look out their office windows for guidance in their decision. The nation’s capital sets a strong example on a question that affects women across the country. Abortion rights are congruent with women’s rights and District abortion laws make that abundantly clear.
Attorney Koria Stanton, with the Maryland Criminal Defense Group, handles cases ranging from assault and disorderly conduct, to sex offenses and robbery.