What The SCOTUS Abortion Decision Means — And Why It Matters

On March 2nd, the Supreme Court heard the case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which has been called the most important abortion case heard in this generation’s lifetime. Today, on June 27th, the Court ruled to invalidate Texas abortion restrictions in a 5-3 decision.

But what exactly does this case, and this ruling, mean? Because we still don't live in an educational climate in which young women receive an in-depth education about crucial things like reproductive rights in school, here's the run-down on what this Supreme Court case was really about, why it matters, and where we're going from here.

The Abortion Rights Landscape.

Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures a woman can have in the United States and a common one, too. One in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime and almost none of them regret doing so. The majority (62%) of Americans support their right to access this safe and affordable procedure at least in some circumstances, according to one 2015 poll, and thanks to Roe v. Wade, abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973.

Yet even so, abortion is effectively impossible for countless American women to actually obtain.

To understand Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, it’s necessary to start at the beginning of the legal battle for abortion. Roe v. Wade is often considered the definitive Supreme Court abortion case, but another case, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, occurred a couple decades later and is primarily responsible for the current landscape of abortion access.

In that 1992 case, the Supreme Court ruled that while abortion should remain legal, states could regulate women’s ability to actually access it. As long as obtaining an abortion didn’t create an “undue burden,” the case determined, state lawmakers could make it however difficult to actually get one as they wanted.

Unfortunately, conservative lawmakers took this opportunity very seriously. Abortion access has recently been disappearing at the fastest annual rate on record. Since 2011, at least 162 abortion providers have closed down or stopped offering the service and lawmakers have passed a record-breaking 231 abortion restriction laws in the last four years. State legislatures have introduced 147 choice-related bill in 2016 alone, according to RH Reality Check.

“Abortion needs to be accessible, not just legal,” Julia Reitcker Flynn, Youth Organizing and Mobilization at Advocates for Youth, explained to the FBomb. “If it’s legal, but you have no way of accessing it, then that doesn’t help you at all.”

These laws (known as TRAP laws, or Targeted Regulation or Abortion Providers) end up forcing people to “travel increasingly long distances to end a pregnancy,” and enforce “unnecessary and onerous waiting periods” for women to get an abortion, Steph Herold, Managing Director of the reproductive rights organization Sea Change, added.

These laws and their effects hurt all women, but especially low-income women who don’t have the “time or resources to make a trip that may require 3-4 days off work and hundreds of miles of travel,” Herold added.

While lawmakers claim that they want to implement these measures for women’s own good, doctors and health professionals have stated that making abortion hard to access actually puts women and girls’ health at risk. This is because when women want or need an abortion, they will go to extremes to obtain them — a point demonstrated in Texas itself, where as many as 240,000 women have attempted to perform their own abortions.

“The real goal of these restrictions is to shut down clinics and make it harder for people to access abortion care,” Reitcker Flynn concluded.

Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt

This is where Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt comes in. Women well-beyond Texas will be effected by this decision. The case targeted the murky “undue burden” precedent set in 1992 and set a new precedent of “whether or not politicians can continue to pass bills that undermine women’s health and rights,” Reitcker Flynn said.

The case specifically focused on Texas and involved two laws in the state that have forced more than 75% of the clinics in the state to close, leaving 5.4 million Texas women of reproductive age with only 10 abortion providers in the entire state. One of these provisions revolved around excessively stringent admitting privileges and the other unnecessary surgical center requirements.

On June 27th, the court struck down both of these provisions of the law in a 5-3 decision. This not only means that the abortion clinics in Texas that faced these undue burdens be allowed to open, but also that clinics that faced similar undue burdens in other states will be alleviated from such restrictions, too. Because the Supreme Court only hears a limited number of cases every year, the cases they take effectively announce a rule that applies to all similar cases across the country going forward.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in the Texas case is likely to set the standard for judging these laws and determine what types of obstacles a state can put in the path of a woman who has decided to have an abortion,” Jennifer Dalven of the ACLU told the FBomb.

But the reproductive rights fight is far from over. This decision is a major victory, but one of the most powerful things young women can continue to do to support these rights is perhaps deceptively simple: talking about it.

“More and more people are sharing their abortion stories because they don't want to see access to abortion disappear and because they want to end the silence,” Reitcker Flynn said. “We need to shatter the stigma around abortion and work to ensure that everyone is able to access abortion when and if they need it.”

Lizz Winstead, founder of the organization Lady Parts Justice — which uses humorous narratives to raise awareness about abortion access — agrees.

“I feel like we need to shift the script, we need to start talking about abortion as a normal part of life and we need to defend it for those who have had them so they don’t feel shamed,” she told the FBomb. “We can let people know they’re part of a community and they can take comfort in that.”

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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