Abortion rights protest following the Supreme Court decision for Whole Women's Health in 2016

Reflections on the Transnational Significance of June Medical

By Fiona de Londras

By any ordinary standard of comparativism, one might suggest that the abortion jurisprudence of the United States is so particular to its own circumstances that it ought to be considered sui generis.

But U.S. Supreme Court abortion law decisions always attract international attention, not only because of the (perhaps peculiarly) combative nature of U.S. abortion law, but also because the United States is something of a bellwether for abortion law reform.

This is, in truth, rather undesirable. U.S. abortion law is shaped by the idiosyncrasies of at least three power struggles playing out in particular ways in the American politico-legal landscape: contestations between anti-abortion and pro-choice politics and activism, constitutionalist struggles between judicial and legislative decision-makers, and constitutional tensions between states and federal authority.

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Fairview Heights, IL—Jan 5, 2020; Sign on medical clinic announces Planned Parenthood branch is now open, the southern Illinois clinic was built to serve St Louis after Missouri restricted abortions.

Preventing Access to Abortion is Prima Facie an “Undue Burden”

By Louise P. King

As an obstetrician/gynecologist, lawyer, and bioethicist, when I read Supreme Court rulings on reproductive rights, I am struck by how little the Court understands the restrictive and burdensome nature of our medical system for women.

The latest decision on reproductive rights, June Medical Services LLC v Russo, does not bolster my confidence in the Court. The decision was narrowly won. While Chief Justice John Roberts’ concurrence gives deference to precedent, it and the dissent suggest that a slightly different statutory requirement — equally and unnecessarily restrictive of access to needed care — could, in the future, be upheld.

This is a problem given that the U.S. health care system is already rife with and primed for gender-based inequities.

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protest sign at supreme court

The Narrow Victory of June Medical Might Pave the Way for Future Abortion Restrictions

By David S. Cohen

June Medical v. Russo was a victory for Louisiana’s three independent abortion clinics and the thousands of people in the state they can now continue to serve. But, going forward, Chief Justice Roberts’ concurring opinion could pave the way for federal courts to bless a host of abortion restrictions that would make access to care more difficult.

To understand what might happen based on the Chief’s opinion, it’s instructive to look at Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In that case, the Court announced the undue burden test, a test that in theory could have had bite. Per the decision, “An undue burden exists, and therefore a provision of law is invalid, if its purpose or effect is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”

However, in Casey itself, the Court applied the standard and upheld almost all of the restrictions before it — a parental interference requirement, an abortion-only extreme informed consent process, and a 24-hour mandatory delay. The only provision the Court struck down under the undue burden test was the requirement that a married woman notify her husband before having an abortion.

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Globe.

Questioning the Comparative Relevance of US Abortion Jurisprudence

By Payal Shah

In the U.S., June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Russo is a critical decision to stall regression on abortion rights. From a global perspective, however, June Medical, along with the Court’s contemporaneous decision upholding the U.S. government’s Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath (APLO) in Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, reflect another truth—the growing idiosyncrasy, insufficiency, and impropriety of comparative reference to U.S. abortion jurisprudence.

U.S. abortion jurisprudence has been cited by courts across the world in recognizing reproductive rights. This is in part because the U.S. was among the first countries to state that a women’s right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy is a protected constitutional right.

However, in the almost 50 years since Roe, the U.S. constitutional framework on abortion has not evolved in a comprehensive manner; instead has been shaped reactively, in response to laws passed by anti-abortion legislatures. Yet, constitutional courts continue to “ritualistically” employ Roe as the “hallmark of progressive law.”

The June Medical and Alliance for Open Society decisions ultimately maintain the national status quo on abortion rights—including the possibility of reversal of Roe v. Wade— and also facilitate the silencing of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) movements abroad. In doing so, these decisions call into question the contemporary comparative relevance of U.S. abortion jurisprudence.

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WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 21, 2019: A crowd of women hold signs supporting reproductive justice at the #StopTheBans rally in DC.

A Radical Reorientation for U.S. Abortion Rights

By Joanna Erdman

There is something inappropriate, even uncomfortable, about Chief Justice John G. Robert’s love letter to precedent in June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo.

On June 29, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held unconstitutional a Louisiana law that required doctors who perform abortions in the state to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. If the law went into effect, a single provider, or, at most, two, would remain in the state. The vote was 5 to 4. Roberts cast the fifth vote, but he did so in a separate opinion compelled by precedent.  The Louisiana law and its burdens on the right to abortion were nearly identical to those in Whole Woman’s Health, and therefore “Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents” – even a precedent that he believes is wrongly decided.

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Washington, DC, USA -- March 4, 2020. Wide angle photo of a throng of protesters at an abortion rights rally in front of the Supreme Court.

June Medical v. Russo Reflects Ongoing Struggle with Black Women’s Constitutional Equality

By Michele Goodwin

The Supreme Court’s June Medical v. Russo case was more than just another cog in the wheel of the intensifying battle against the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

Though, on its face, the case was about access to abortion, just beneath the surface, the law at issue represented a continuation of Louisiana’s historic resistance to sex and race equality. Read More

WASHINGTON MAY 21: Pro-choice activists rally to stop states’ abortion bans in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on May 21, 2019.

The Harms of Abortion Restrictions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Beatrice Brown

Several states, including Texas, Ohio, and Alabama, have dangerously and incorrectly deemed abortions a non-essential or elective procedure during the COVID-19 pandemic. The stated reason for these orders is to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE), a scarce, important resource for protecting health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

However, these policies restricting abortion are unlikely to conserve PPE, and more importantly, they mischaracterize the nature and importance of abortions.

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New TWIHL 182: Abortion Exceptionalism During COVID-19

By Nicolas Terry

I welcome three excellent guests this week. Our discussion centers around new abortion restrictions issued as part of state responses to COVID-19. For example, in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning nonessential medical services. Subsequently, his attorney general interpreted that order as applying to all abortions. Planned Parenthood successfully applied for a temporary restraining order in the district court, only for the Fifth Circuit to lift the stay.

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Histogram chart depicts the number of states that have passed restrictions, bans or protections for abortion in the United States in 2018 and 2019, as well as how court cases may have impacted the implementation of those laws.

Increased Restrictions and Court Activity for Reproductive Rights in the US in 2019

The landscape of abortion law in the United States saw increases in targeted restrictions in 2019, but also some efforts to protect access by state governments and courts, according to new data published this week to LawAtlas.org.

The data capture abortion-focused statutes and regulations (or amendments to existing laws) in effect between December 1, 2018 and December 1, 2019, as well as court cases that may impact the implementation of these laws.

Our research team noticed a few trends:

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Illustration of cell phones and prescription pill bottles

Access as Equity: Efforts to Use Telemedicine to Expand Abortion Access

By Oliver Kim

I’ve written here before about areas where technology could play a role in providing access to complicated, controversial healthcare services. Earlier this year, I presented a forthcoming paper co-authored with a colleague on how technology can be used to provide greater equity in women’s health and how the law is being used to encourage such advances or block them. Given the political battles over women’s health, it should be no surprise that technology’s role in abortion access is under increasing scrutiny from lawmakers.

A medication abortion involves a two-step regimen: the woman first takes mifepristone, generally in a clinical setting, and 24 to 48 hours later, she takes misoprostol, generally in the privacy of her home. Recent research, though, suggests that women may not need to take mifepristone in a clinical setting: the World Health Organization revised its guidelines on whether the medications require “close medical supervision,” and a recent op-ed in the New England Journal of Medicine called on the Food and Drug Administration to revise its restrictions on mifepristone.

Given these findings, abortion providers have recognized that telemedicine could be utilized to expand access into areas where abortion services are limited due to geography, legal restrictions, or both. Since 2008, Planned Parenthood in Iowa has used telemedicine to overcome both provider shortages and geographic challenges: a physician can use video conferencing services to appear virtually at health centers across the state, reviewing a patient’s ultrasound and medical history remotely and providing counseling over a secure, private system. The majority of the medical literature finds that using telemedicine to provide medication abortions is just as safe and effective as if a woman met with a clinician in person.

As we discuss in our paper, when technology expands access to care that is politically controversial, policymakers may use the law to restrict such technological advances. In response to this use of telemedicine, states hostile to abortion began passing bans. When Iowa’s medical board attempted to restrict such a use of telemedicine, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the board’s regulation, holding that it would be an undue burden on a woman’s right to an abortion. Some hailed the Iowa decision as groundbreaking and hopefully influential on other state supreme courts. (Later that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health would strike down two Texas statutory restrictions on abortion providers as undue burdens on a woman’s right to an abortion.)

What I find interesting—and what came out after we submitted our paper—is how telemedicine and abortion are being treated in neighboring Kansas and how it reflects the larger legal debate over these issues. In 2011, Kansas first attempted to ban telemedicine abortions by requiring a physician to be physically present when administering mifepristone, thus eliminating the value of telemedicine. Subsequently, the Kansas state legislature modified the ban in 2015 by clarifying that a physician would not need to be physically present in a medical emergency; in 2018, the legislature passed explicit language in the Kansas Telemedicine Act that nothing in this new telemedicine legislation authorized the use of telemedicine for abortion. However, a Kansas court enjoined the Kansas attorney general, the only defendant in this line of cases, from enforcing this provision or the in-person requirements under the court’s prior 2011 decision.

Even more remarkable, in the same state that elected Sam Brownback governor twice, the Kansas Supreme Court recently held in Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt that the Kansas constitution provided a fundamental right to an abortion.

Thus, it may seem surprising that in a subsequent decision, a district court refused to grant a preliminary injunction for Trust Women, a Wichita-based abortion provider, to prohibit the state from enforcing the telemedicine abortion restrictions. Part of this new case turns on standing as well as recognizing that the prior line of telemedicine-abortion cases only enjoined the state attorney general and was silent on whether the state health department or county attorneys were similarly enjoined from enforcing the telemedicine-abortion bans.

Further, the court also turned part of its decision on whether Trust Women would suffer an irreparable injury: the court found that there was insufficient evidence of an injury because Trust Women still required patients to be present physically at its Wichita clinic in its telemedicine pilot, and Trust Women had taken no preliminary steps to open clinics in remote rural parts of the state. Indeed, the court decried the prior telemedicine-abortion rulings as “a growing procedural backwater” and suggested that the court needs to be able “to resolve the underlying merits of the telemedicine abortion issue,” necessitating that “the parties… present additional evidence and more probing legal analysis than has occurred at this early stage.”

While the district court has significant discretion in considering a request for a preliminary injunction, it does feel troubling that the court suggests that Trust Women should have invested time and resources into a telemedicine strategy that might be illegal before seeking relief. In light of the bans and the legislature’s hostility, it seems unlikely that Trust Women could have raised the funds necessary to create a telemedicine infrastructure and build clinics in remote rural areas. After all, although the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision was not on the telemedicine restrictions, it seems unlikely that they would survive a strict scrutiny review under Hodes since the state will bear the burden of justifying the law. Moreover, it’s also likely that the restrictions might not survive review under Whole Woman’s Health given the weight of medical evidence that suggests singling out abortion from all other services provided by telemedicine, is suspect.

This is also playing out on the national stage as the Fifth Circuit in June Medical v. Gee seemingly sent a direct challenge to Whole Woman’s Health where the Fifth Circuit upheld Louisiana abortion restrictions that were basically identical to the Texas restrictions that were struck down. How June Medical is ultimately resolved will have ramifications for telemedicine in this particular context.

While medical evidence demonstrates that telemedicine is a safe means of providing medication abortion (as well as providing other benefits for women such as privacy), there are of course those that dispute this notion. One could see a conservative court finding that a telemedicine ban is not an undue burden: under the Trust Women preliminary injunction ruling, women in rural areas are no worse off than they were before since they never had access to abortion via telemedicine to begin with. Further, if waiting periods and similar barriers are upheld post-Whole Woman’s Health, this could put rural access even further at risk. In other words, a woman still has access to abortion, just not via telemedicine. Of course many such arguments could be applied to any telemedicine application, so the question turns back again: Why place restrictions just on abortion services?

In so many areas, though, telemedicine has been hailed as a way to increase access for all patients. The issues arise in the same areas where there have always been strong opinions, but the evidence and the trend lines are overwhelmingly in favor of expanded telemedicine access. The law should follow.