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High Court Hears Biggest Abortion Case in 25 Years

03-01-2016
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The Supreme Court heard its biggest abortion case in nearly 25 years Wednesday.

Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt involves a 2013 Texas law, House Bill 2, that implements safety standards for abortion clinics that match up with the regulations of other surgical clinics.

The standards include requirements to uphold quality of care, cleanliness and safety, proper staffing and safe laboratory services. For example, the law requires hallways to be wide enough for gurneys to transport women into an ambulance.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was at the Supreme Court Wednesday listening to oral arguments. CBN's Jennifer Wishon spoke to him about the case and what would happen if the Court splits on the issue.

The law also requires abortion clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic.

Wednesday's Supreme Court hearing involved 85 minutes of liberal and conservative justices asking pointed questions that showed the Court's deep division over abortion.

With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court could tie 4-4, which would uphold the appeals court decision in favor of the Texas law.

If the Court does tie, the justices could decide to hear the case again when a new colleague replaces Scalia.

Justice Anthony Kennedy could have the decisive vote. Kennedy's questions Wednesday, however, did not clearly show what direction he will take.

He did seem to be concerned that one result of the Texas law is that it has decreased the number of abortions resulting from women taking pills and raised the number of surgical abortions, which he said "may not be medically wise."

Kennedy suggested one decision the Court could make would be to basically put the issue on hold to see if the remaining clinics in Texas can meet the demand for abortion.

Those who oppose the Texas law say it's an "undue burden" on women and a way to restrict access to abortions.

They believe the extra expense to implement the safety standards will cause abortion clinics to close.

In fact, opponents say the Texas legislature's goal in passing the law was to shut the doors of abortion clinics and "single out abortion for heightened medical regulation."

The Obama administration backs the abortion clinics which argue the requirements already have closed half the roughly 40 clinics that were open before the law went into effect.

Clinic leaders say only about 10 clinics would exist if the law is allowed to take full effect.

Texas says its law is a way to prevent what happened at the clinic of late-term abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia.

A jury convicted Gosnell of three counts of murder for killing three infants born alive by cutting their spinal cords with scissors.

He also was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a 41-year-old immigrant who died from a drug overdose during a botched abortion.

In addition to the murder convictions, Gosnell was found guilty on 21 felony counts of performing illegal abortions and 211 counts of violating the 24-hour informed consent law.

Investigators described his clinic as a "house of horrors," with blood-stained walls, unsterilized medical equipment, and fetal remains stored in the employee refrigerator.

In Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court will consider if the regulations outlined in the Texas law pass the "undue burden" standard expressed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).

The "undue burden" test bans states from putting into effect abortion regulations before viability -- regulations that have the "purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion."

The Court determined viability to be 23-24 weeks gestation because of medical advances.

Texas says there is enough evidence that the regulations under its law are vital to promote the health and safety of women.

"Abortionists should not be given a free pass to elude medical requirements that everyone else is required to follow," Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Steven H. Aden said.

"The 5th Circuit was on firm legal ground in its decision, and we have asked the Supreme Court to affirm it. The law's requirements are common-sense protections that ensure the maximum amount of safety for women," Aden said.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt by late June.

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