In the years since, states have answered the call. For example, 43 states prohibit abortions after a specified point of the pregnancy, typically fetus viability; 19 states prohibit late-term ("partial birth") abortions; 32 states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of state funds except where federal funds are available (to protect the life of the woman or in the case of rape or incest); 17 states mandate that women receive counseling prior to obtaining an abortion; 27 states mandate that women wait a specified amount of time between receiving counseling and receiving the abortion (typically 24 hours but as many as 72); and 38 states require some parental involvement in obtaining an abortion for a minor, with 25 of those states requiring parental consent and 13 states requiring notification but not consent of the parent.
Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (2016), decided in a surprise 5-3 decision with Justice Kennedy (also in the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey) joining the liberal coalition, centered on the Texas State Legislature's HB 2, passed in 2013 and signed into law by then-Governor Rick Perry. HB 2 out a number of provisions pertaining to abortions under the guise of protecting the health of the women in question but with the ultimate effect of precluding providers from meeting standards necessary to lawfully provide abortion access to those in need. Among those provisions were that physicians performing abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion was being performed, and that the abortion facility meet the requirements of ambulatory surgical centers despite the fact that abortions are highly safe outpatient procedures (indeed, evaluating the risks of childbirth versus abortions, compared with a mortality rate of 8.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, there is a mortality rate of 0.6 deaths per 100,000 abortions). While nominally still allowing abortion access, the legislation was deemed to have the effect of all but eliminating abortion facilities in the State of Texas.
To impose marked restraints on abortion access is not unheard of. The State of Missouri has only 1 abortion provider in the entire state, and 89% of counties in the United States have no abortion provider. States are not always overt in their means of excluding abortion access, rather imposing requirements in the name of "safety," with the notion that satisfying the requirements of being a surgical suite will be positively correlated with the health outcomes of the abortions performed there. (Remember, even absent this requirement in most states, the mortality rate is still extraordinarily low). While meeting high standards of medical care is all well and good, the types of regulations that the legislation targets involve such issues as the width of corridors and the size of procedure rooms, neither criteria of which are demonstrably associated with better patient outcomes. (After all, when in the first ten weeks of pregnancy, it can be carried out without any procedure but rather with the so-called "abortion pill," or Mifepristone (RU 486)).The marked implications of such legislation has garnered it the title "clinic shutdown" law, and in the aftermath of the legislation's passage, while Texas previously had approximately forty abortion clinics, approximately half had closed due to the requirement of admitting privileges, and it was estimated that only eight or nine would remain if enforcing provisions requiring that the clinics meet the requirements of surgical centers.
In his majority opinion, Justice Breyer noted the absence of scientific evidence for the necessity of HB 2, writing that "there was no significant health-related problem that the new law helped to cure." The majority cites a number of studies brought to the attention of the Court, noting that among first trimester abortion complications, the highest rate of major complications was less than 0.25%, and that even in the rarer second trimester abortion, the rate of major complication was still less than 0.5%, and that complication only required hospital admission 0.23% of the time and not necessarily on the day of the abortion (making admitting privileges far from a necessity, particularly given that patients will not be turned away from an emergency room). Thus, the majority notes, "We have found nothing in Texas’ record evidence that shows that, compared to prior law (which required a 'working arrangement' with a doctor with admitting privileges), the new law advanced Texas’ legitimate interest in protecting women’s health. We add that, when directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case."
While not providing evidence in support of the health advantages of this different standard of care, the Court notes that the admitting privileges requirement appeared to have had a marked impact on abortion facility closures, with the number of women of reproductive age living 150 miles or farther from an abortion provider going from 86,000 to 400,000, and the additional problems of longer waiting times, fewer doctors, and increased crowding. While increasing the driving distance is not alone enough to support a claim of undue burden, the Court said, the increases constitute an "additional burden" that combine with the abortion clinic closures and the virtually absent proven health benefit to support the District Court's finding that HB 2 constituted an "undue burden" in violation of Casey.
A number of states have so-called TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws, which the Court's recent holding will implicate. Not unlike Casey, while affirming the right to abortion, the Court here still did not hold that any restriction on abortion access constitutes an undue burden. Indeed, effecting a change that would have the result of some clinic closures might still pass constitutional muster. But the intent and effect of the legislation here, given the absence of scientific support and the clearly marked policy effects, were both to restrict if not altogether preclude abortion access to an extent within the realm of the "undue burden" that Casey sought to avoid in negotiating reproductive freedom at the national level and the right of states to forge their own paths (within bounds). What remains to be seen is the extent to which Texas abortion facilities will reopen in the aftermath of the decision, and the trajectory of policy in the other states that had enacted similar legislation (for example, Arizona, on which I wrote previously).
The Court appealed to states' legitimate interest in protecting women's health, with police powers -- typically, the protection of health, safety, and welfare -- typically falling within states' regulatory prerogatives under the Tenth Amendment. What is, of course, at odds in the abortion debate is what precisely constitutes protection of health, safety, and welfare. As Breyer finds, "The surgical-center requirement also 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... Record evidence shows that the new provision imposes a number of additional requirements that are generally unnecessary in the abortion clinic context." The Court rightly emphasized the health benefits, or lack thereof, provided by HB 2 (and by extension, other TRAP laws imposed by states) relative to other policies according to which women may obtain abortions. But an important additional dimension of states' protection of women's (indeed, citizens') health and safety is that in the absence of abortion access.
By making abortion less accessible (reminder: these are laws on the ability to provide abortions and thus do not create exceptions for rape or incest), women are more likely to obtain abortions later in their pregnancy, and while abortions are very safe early in the pregnancy (when the vast majority of abortions are performed), the risks do go up when performed later (though as the statistics cited above indicate, the risks are still low). If unable to obtain a legal abortion, one may be more likely to seek an illegal, unregulated abortion, thus subjecting oneself to a host of potential harms to which one is not exposed when in regulated medical care. Indeed, cracking down on legalized abortion has been argued by some to have more impact on the safety than the incidence of abortion. And if one is unable to provide adequate care to a child but is unable to terminate the pregnancy, we are not only sentencing women to motherhood but are faced with a further question of whose life we really are protecting. If we are only protecting life before birth, we might need to reevaluate what we're fighting for.
The Supreme Court's decision in Whole Woman's Health made important progress toward cracking down on overly restrictive state legislation and better defining what falls within the realm of "undue burden" on women's reproductive choice. By implication, the similar laws in effect in dozens of other states will likely be determined to be unconstitutional, though time will tell the speed with which we see policy changes go into effect.