The Supreme Court struck down Texas' widely replicated regulation of abortion clinics yesterday in the court's biggest abortion case in nearly a quarter century.
The justices voted 5-3 in favour of Texas clinics that had argued the regulations were only a veiled attempt to make it harder for women to get abortions in the nation's second-most populous state.
Justice Stephen Breyer's majority opinion for the court held that the regulations are medically unnecessary and unconstitutionally limit a woman's right to an abortion.
Texas had argued that its 2013 law and subsequent regulations were needed to protect women's health. The rules required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and forced clinics to meet hospital-like standards for outpatient surgery.
Breyer wrote that "the surgical-centre requirement, like the admitting privileges requirement, provides few, if any, health benefits for women, poses a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions and constitutes an 'undue burden' on their constitutional right to do so."
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Breyer.
Ginsburg wrote a short opinion noting that laws like Texas' "that do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion, cannot survive judicial inspection" under the court's earlier abortion-rights decisions. She pointed specifically to Roe v. Wade in 1973 and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Thomas wrote that the decision "exemplifies the court's troubling tendency 'to bend the rules when any effort to limit abortion, or even to speak in opposition to abortion, is at issue.'" Thomas was quoting an earlier abortion dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Scalia has not yet been replaced, so only eight justices voted.
Alito, reading a summary of his dissent in court, said the clinics should have lost on technical, procedural grounds. Alito said the court was adopting a rule of, "If at first you don't succeed, sue, sue again."
Abortion providers said the rules would have cut the number of abortion clinics in Texas by three-fourths if they had been allowed to take full effect.
When then Governor Rick Perry signed the law in 2013, there were about 40 clinics throughout the state. That number dropped to under 20 and would have been cut in half again if the law had taken full effect, the clinics said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the law "was an effort to improve minimum safety standards and ensure capable care for Texas women. It's exceedingly unfortunate that the court has taken the ability to protect women's health out of the hands of Texas citizens and their duly elected representatives."