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Texas Abortion Clinic Restrictions Terminated by Supreme Court

The Supreme Court struck down restrictive regulations on abortion providers in Texas today, in Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt, ruling that those restrictions constitute an undue burden on a woman's access to abortion, in violation of the Constitution.

The restrictions, which required abortion providers to obtain admitting-privileges at hospitals and meet the requirements of surgical centers, would have forced the vast majority of Texas's abortion clinics to close. Those requirements created substantial obstacles to abortion access while doing little to protect the health of women, the Court ruled in a 5-3 decision.

Substantial Burdens With Few Health Benefits

Texas's abortion clinic regulations, put in place by House Bill 2, or HB 2, in 2013, are some of the strictest in the country. Under HB 2, abortion clinics must meet the requirements of an ambulatory surgical center, including meeting the same staffing and equipment requirements. In addition, doctors performing abortions would need admitting-privileges at local hospitals, something often difficult to obtain.

By some estimates, the clinic restrictions would have caused the vast majority of Texas's abortion clinics. Since 2012, almost half of those clinics have already closed.

The state had argued that the law was needed to protect women's health, but the Supreme Court rejected that today. In a lengthy opinion written by Justice Breyer, the Court explained that there was considerable evidence that HB 2's requirements "provide few, if any, health benefits for women."

Those paltry benefits, when paired with the reduction in abortion access, constitute an unconstitutional "undue burden" in violation of Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Getting Around (or Ignoring?) Res Judicata

But before the Court could so rule, it had to deal with the problem of res judicata. Several of the petitioners in today's case had participated in a previous, unsuccessful challenge to HB 2. That, the Court explained, does not prevent the current suit from going forward because of claim preclusion, as the Fifth Circuit had found. The petitioner's preenforcement challenge simply did not present the same claim.

In their dissents, both Justices Thomas and Alito take issue with this "new exception" to the traditional rules of res judicata, with Justice Alito going in heavily on the Court's alleged inconsistency with precedent. The majority's response? Justice Alito is "simply wrong" on the question of res judicata.

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