WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court appeared divided on Wednesday as the justices weighed a major abortion rights case — a challenge to a Louisiana law that imposes restrictions on doctors that could make it harder for women to obtain the procedure.

The court, with a 5-4 conservative majority, was hearing an hour of arguments in an appeal by Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women seeking to invalidate the 2014 law. Two of Louisiana’s three clinics that perform abortions would be forced to close if the law is allowed to take effect, according to lawyers for the clinic.

Some conservative justices signaled sympathy toward Louisiana’s law. Chief Justice John Roberts, who could cast the decisive vote in the case, asked questions over whether factual disputes over abortion restrictions would have to proceed state-by-state. The liberal justices appeared skeptical toward the Louisiana law.

The clinic sued to block the law, which requires that doctors who perform abortions have a sometimes difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 48km of the clinic. A federal appeals court upheld the law. President Donald Trump’s administration supports Louisiana in the case.

The Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas admitting privileges requirement in 2016 when conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018, joined the four liberal justices to defend abortion rights. Trump has tightened the conservative grip on the court with his 2018 appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who replaced Kennedy, and his 2017 appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Neither Kavanaugh nor Kennedy ruled directly on abortion rights during their prior service as federal appellate judges. Trump promised during the 2016 presidential race to appoint justices who would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling that recognised a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion and legalised it nationwide. The Supreme Court in 1992 reaffirmed Roe vs Wade in a ruling that prohibited laws that placed an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

The Louisiana case will test the willingness of the court to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states.

Abortion remains one of the most divisive social issues in the United States, with Christian conservatives — an important constituency for Trump — among those most opposed to it. A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Louisiana’s law could prompt other states to pass similar statutes.

Abortion rights advocates have argued that restrictions such as admitting privileges are meant to limit access to abortion not protect women’s health as proponents say.

Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2020

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