Health

Federal Appeals Court Allows Louisiana’s Extreme Abortion Law To Move Forward

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman

Women with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health demonstrate outside of 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A federal appeals court in New Orleans is considering whether a Texas law puts up an unconstitutional obstacle to women seeking abortions.

Women living in Louisiana will now have just one abortion clinic available to them in the entire state, thanks to a U.S. appeals court decision handed down on Wednesday evening.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is allowing Louisiana to implement a harsh law that was first approved in 2014 and that has been tied up in court proceedings since then. Under that law, clinics are required to enter into business relationships — called “admitting privileges” — with hospitals within a 30 mile radius. Four of the state’s five abortion clinics say they will not be able to meet that standard and will therefore be forced to close.

Reproductive rights proponents say these requirements fit into what’s known as the “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers,” or TRAP, which refers to a nationwide strategy to limit access to reproductive health care by imposing burdensome and unnecessary restrictions on clinics.

The strategy is working. Abortion clinics are closing at a record pace, particularly in the South. Across the country, at least 162 clinics have shuttered over the past five years, according to a Bloomberg investigation published this week.

“Today’s ruling thrusts Louisiana into a reproductive health care crisis, where women will face limited safe and legal options when they’ve made the decision to end a pregnancy,” Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, the organization challenging Louisiana’s abortion laws, said in a statement following the Fifth Circuit’s ruling. “We will immediately seek emergency relief from the Supreme Court.”

Louisiana’s law is directly modeled on similar clinic restrictions in Texas that have wreaked havoc on women’s access to abortion services in the Lone Star State. Texas’ law has also wound its way up the court system — and the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments about it next week.

The Texas case coming before the Supreme Court will mark a turning point for abortion clinics, which are struggling to remain open under TRAP laws that have rapidly spread over the last several years. Twenty-four states have some type of TRAP law on the books that require abortion providers to go beyond what’s medically necessary for their patients.

“The decision is likely to have an effect on a whole range of laws that pretend to be about women’s health but actually are designed to close clinics,” Northup told the New York Times this week.

The recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia makes the pending case more complicated. Without Scalia on the bench, and in the absence of a new confirmation, it’s possible the justices will hand down a 4-4 decision regarding Texas’ law. If that happens, it will be good news for Roe v. Wade — but it won’t improve the situation for women living in Louisiana or Texas.

While a split decision won’t set a nationwide precedent that gives other states legal cover for passing TRAP laws, it will allow harsh abortion laws to stand in the conservative Fifth Circuit’s jurisdiction, which includes Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi.

Women’s options are already dwindling in this area. Mississippi only has one abortion clinic. Huge swaths of Texas have been left without legal abortion providers, and some Texas women are already traveling to Louisiana to end a pregnancy. With even fewer clinics in Louisiana, it’s unclear where those women will be able to turn.

“This cannot be what it means to be a woman in America in 2016,” Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richard said in a statement in response to the news out of Louisiana. But, depending on how the courts eventually rule, it is.