Louisiana Abortion Clinic Drops Lawsuit Against The State

Aug 3, 2020

Hope Medical Group for Women, the Shreveport abortion clinic that prevailed at the U.S. Supreme Court this year, has dropped a separate lawsuit against Louisiana’s abortion regulations.

The suit challenged the state’s abortion clinic licensing law, arguing its estimated 1,000 requirements amount to an unconstitutional burden on access to abortion. Three doctors who provide abortions joined the challenge.

Lawyers for Hope Medical Group for Women declined to explain why they withdrew the suit, after making the decision last week. Jenny Ma, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the legal nonprofit will “remain diligent in fighting the many medically unnecessary abortion restrictions in Louisiana — the state with the most anti-abortion laws in the country.”

She noted that Hope Medical Group for Women is still fighting a separate lawsuit against a slew of anti-abortion laws passed by the state in 2016.

“As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month, patients have a right to access abortion without these undue burdens, and we continue to fight for them and Hope Medical Group,” Ma said.

Attorney General Jeff Landry called the move a win for Louisiana’s “pro-woman, pro-life laws.”

“Today’s news is a victory for Louisiana women, and I congratulate Solicitor Liz Murrill and her team for yet another win in our efforts to protect Louisiana women and girls from unsafe conditions in abortion clinics,” Landry said in a statement.

But the decision to end the suit is likely less a reflection on Louisiana’s defense in the case and more a reflection of the precarious state of abortion-rights lawsuits in the wake of the Supreme Court’s major decision this summer.

Why An Abortion-Rights Win Was Also A Loss

In that case, June Medical Services LLC v. Russo, a narrow 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that could have closed two or all three of the state’s remaining abortion clinics — but it did so with a major caveat.

The case hinged on the concurring opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative who ruled unexpectedly with the court’s liberal justices. Roberts decided that Louisiana’s law couldn’t stand, because the court had already invalidated a nearly identical one in Texas in the 2016 landmark decision Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. But he did so without a full endorsement of that precedent.

In both cases, the law at issue forced abortion doctors to gain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Many doctors in both states couldn’t meet the requirement for a variety of reasons unrelated to medical competency, and neither law was found to serve any medical benefit.

Whole Woman’s Health had been viewed by abortion rights advocates as a powerful tool to attack anti-abortion laws and regulations. In the ensuing years, the Center for Reproductive Rights in particular has advanced a handful of new legal challenges arguing that the cumulative impacts of dozens of anti-abortion laws and of entire abortion licensing requirements serve to impede abortion access, and are thus unconstitutional.

Before Whole Woman’s Health, the Supreme Court abortion precedents directed courts to examine laws and regulations in isolation. After it, abortion-rights groups argued the Supreme Court now required judges to examine these laws in context of one another to determine the burden on access to abortion, and that it required states to prove a medical benefit, rather than simply claim one.

As Louisiana’s complaint in the now-withdrawn case argues, the Louisiana Department of Health “wielded” its clinic licensing law “in the same way that Texas authorities used the legislation struck down in Whole Woman’s Health as ‘a brutally effective system of abortion regulation that reduces access to abortion clinics thereby creating a statewide burden for substantial numbers of . . . women.’”

But while Roberts upheld the effect of Whole Woman’s Health this year and struck down Louisiana’s admitting privileges law, his opinion is widely viewed as dramatically watering down its implications. Roberts seems to have created a new, lower benchmark. No longer do courts need to weigh the alleged benefits of an abortion law, he wrote, and if they do, they must accept the legislature’s reasoning.

This is key because a slew of anti-abortion laws in recent decades have been advanced by anti-abortion politicians in the name of protecting women’s health, as is the case with Louisana’s clinic licensing law and many of its hundreds of regulations. Often, anti-abortion politicians paint abortion clinics as unsafe and ill-run, as Landry did in his statement last week.

“Louisiana’s incompetent and unsafe abortion providers should not be permitted to challenge the health and safety standards that our duly-elected Legislature enacts in order to protect women from these very same providers,” he said.

Last October, a 3-0 panel of judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Hope Medical Group’s case against the state’s abortion regulation laws likely lacked standing in a number of areas, and that before the clinic could argue that Louisiana’s regulations amounted to an undue burden, it would have to establish its standing for each challenged provision (of which there were more than 1,000).

That left Hope’s lawyers with one likely option for moving forward: a lengthy analysis of hundreds of provisions, without the guarantee that states would be forced to defend whether each provision advanced patient health and safety, and without a unified 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court likely to accept its argument of the collective burden of so many stacked requirements.

How Similar Lawsuit Have Fared

Louisiana’s isn’t the only lawsuit challenging an entire suite of abortion regulations to falter in the courts. Last September, a federal judge in Virginia ruled to strike down a number of abortion laws in that state, but upheld its licensing scheme.

“We put forth powerful and overwhelming evidence showing how these laws, individually and together, work to obstruct abortion access, but that was largely ignored by the court,” Ma, the lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said at the time.

A similar challenge in Mississippi is reportedly ongoing.