The Supreme Court decision to strike down two restrictive abortion laws in Texas will likely have a ripple effect across the country, potentially forcing other states to drop their own similar anti-abortion laws in the coming years.
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that two Texas laws were unconstitutional: one that required abortion clinics to be certified as ambulatory surgical centers and another requiring doctors to gain admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The Court found that in both cases, these restrictions put an "undue burden" on women seeking to terminate pregnancies without doing enough to protect women’s health.
There are 23 additional states that require abortion clinics to become certified as ambulatory surgical centers and 10 with laws that require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.
The Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t automatically wipe those laws from the books; it only applies to Texas. Each of the other state laws will need to be challenged and also found unconstitutional. And while abortion rights supporters will have very strong precedent on their side — they’ll be able to point to this new Supreme Court ruling — it's still a process that can take months or even a few years.
"It’s not like marriage equality, where all of a sudden, if the forms were available, you could go get married," says Elizabeth Nash, the state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research organization that supports abortion rights. "Cases have to be resolved or filed."
The effects of these laws, Nash says, "will be felt for a very long time."
The Supreme Court struck down Texas’s "admitting privilege" law
Abortion clinics argued to the Supreme Court that Texas’s admitting privileges law could prove impossible to comply with; if the local hospital didn’t want to grant privileges, the abortion clinic would have to close.
And the justices agreed with this argument, citing the recent closures of clinics as an "undue burden" on Texas women seeking abortions.
There are 10 other states that have similar admitting privilege laws. Six of those are already facing lawsuits, according to the Guttmacher Institute. One of those states, Mississippi, which has just one abortion clinic in the entire state, has already petitioned the Supreme Court to hear its own admitting privileges law.
Nash says it's possible the laws being challenged could come down quickly; the plaintiffs in those cases may simply have to point to the new precedent from the Supreme Court to make a compelling case to a lower court. In the case of Mississippi, the Supreme Court could remand the challenge back to the appeals court and tell it to take a second look with this new Texas precedent in mind.
SCOTUS on surgical center regulations: "The record makes clear that the surgical-center requirement provides no benefit"
Texas was one of two dozen states that required abortion clinics to become certified as ambulatory surgical centers. The exact regulation would vary from state to state, but this often meant upgrading the clinics to have wider hallways or, in the case of Texas, even specified the size of the janitor’s closet.
Texas lawmakers argued that these regulations made abortion clinics safer for women, but the Supreme Court rejected that argument.
"The record makes clear that the surgical-center requirement provides no benefit when complications arise in the context of an abortion produced through medication," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his decision. "That is because, in such a case, complications would almost always arise only after the patient has left the facility."
There are 23 additional states that have similar ambulatory surgical center requirements — they’re the ones you see highlighted in the map above. And they’ll all need to face individual challenges in local courts in order for those laws to come off the books.
Is the Supreme Court decision a guarantee that other states’ restrictive abortion laws will fall? Not necessarily.
The Supreme Court decision gives abortion rights supporters a new and very important piece of precedent to challenge dozens of other laws that are similar to Texas’s unconstitutional restrictions.
Without a doubt, they have a much stronger case to make to state and federal judges than before the Supreme Court ruled.
But that case also isn’t ironclad. Other states’ laws do differ slightly from Texas in what exactly they require, and abortion rights opponents might use those differences to argue that the Supreme Court precedent isn’t relevant.
"The Supreme Court only applies to Texas," says Nick Bagley, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Law who focuses on health policy. "Other states will have slightly different laws with slightly different facts to argue over."
One thing that stands out about the Texas case is that it was very facts-based: Justices wrote extensively about the effect the law was having on clinic closures, the distance that women had to drive, and their overall access to abortion.
So there is a possible world in which abortion opponents try to mount a defense with different facts — if they can make the argument that in their state, abortion access hasn’t changed significantly in the wake of new laws.
Experts say this will be an uphill battle with the Supreme Court case, but not a completely impossible one. And in any case, it means that laws similar to those in Texas will continue to exist in the United States, perhaps for years to come.