SHREVEPORT, La. (Reuters) - A 27-year-old woman from southern Arkansas waited nervously at the Hope Medical Group for Women after traveling two hours for a medical procedure that is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain in certain parts of the United States: an abortion.
Four weeks pregnant, the woman felt she had no option but to seek an abortion because she suffered serious medical complications during her last pregnancy, which ended in stillbirth.
“I’m incredibly thankful for this place,” the woman told Reuters. “I don’t want to die.”
The future of the Hope clinic, located in the city of Shreveport in northwestern Louisiana, hangs in the balance. The clinic is housed in a windowless brick structure on a corner lot several miles from the casino hotel-dominated skyline of the city of about 190,000 people.
Its fate lies in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which on March 4 is set to hear the clinic’s challenge to a tough Louisiana law placing new restrictions on doctors who perform abortions. If the law goes into effect, the clinic may have to close down.
Clinic staff members said some women would face considerable barriers to obtaining abortions if they have to travel further and some may ultimately forgo the procedure.
A 24-year-old woman who was nine weeks pregnant had traveled from east Texas. She said she sought an abortion because she was unable to take medication for a health condition while she is pregnant.
“It’s important that we can make our own decisions and not be forced to have a child,” the woman said.
Both clinic patients spoke to Reuters on condition that they not be named.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, expected by the end of June, could signal whether its 5-4 conservative majority, including two justices appointed by President Donald Trump, intends to make bold moves to curtail abortion rights. Anti-abortion activists are hoping the court will undermine and eventually overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion and legalized the procedure nationwide.
Trump’s administration has backed Louisiana in the case.
Abortion remains one of the most divisive social issues in the United States. Louisiana and other conservative states have in recent years passed various laws seeking to restrict abortion. The Supreme Court sets nationwide boundaries on how far states can go. A ruling in favor of Louisiana could embolden states to enact similar or even stricter laws.
When the Supreme Court in 1992 reaffirmed its Roe v. Wade ruling, it prohibited abortion laws that placed an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.
The court in December left in place a Kentucky restriction requiring doctors to show and describe ultrasound images to women seeking an abortion, turning away a challenge arguing that the measure violated the free speech rights of physicians.
The Supreme Court is reviewing the legality of the 2014 Louisiana law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have an often difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” with a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic.
U.S. District Judge John deGravelles in 2016 blocked it from taking effect, saying it created an impermissible undue burden on obtaining an abortion and would shut down two of Louisiana’s three clinics - the Hope clinic and a facility in Baton Rouge. The judge, who also concluded that the admitting privileges requirement would provide no significant health benefits to women, said that only the clinic in New Orleans, more than 350 miles (560 km) southeast of Shreveport, would remain.
The Supreme Court struck down a similar admitting privileges requirement from Texas in 2016 when conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberal justices in the majority. But Kennedy, a supporter of abortion rights, retired in 2018. Trump, a Republican, replaced him with conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Trump’s other appointee is conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to appoint justices who oppose abortion rights. In January, in an address to an anti-abortion rally in Washington, Trump declared, “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”
Despite the 2016 Supreme Court ruling, the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 upheld the Louisiana law, prompting the clinic’s lawyers to take the risky step of appealing to the Supreme Court. They won a preliminary victory in February 2019, when the Supreme Court put the appeals court ruling on hold, meaning the law has not taken effect.
The Hope clinic’s administrator, Kathaleen Pittman, rejects the state’s contention that additional regulation of abortion is required for health reasons.
“I think that’s a total falsehood,” Pittman said in an interview in her clinic office.
In a state with anti-abortion sentiment among its elected politicians, including Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, Pittman considers the law part of a long-running war on abortion rights.
“We have heard them say the goal is to be an abortion-free state,” Pittman added.
Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill, who is defending the law in the case, has asked the Supreme Court to consider overturning the 2016 Texas ruling even though the precedent is just a few years old. The court is often cautious about overturning precedents and it would be unusual to take that step in a case so recently decided.
Louisiana has clear authority to regulate the clinics, Murrill said in an interview.
“Doctors do not have a constitutional right to perform abortions. They don’t have a constitutional right not be regulated. If the law works the way it is supposed to work, doctors who are competent should be able to obtain privileges,” Murrill said.
At the Supreme Court, the state has offered new information that was not considered in its defense of the law at trial. Louisiana among other things has questioned whether doctors have made “good faith” efforts to secure admitting privileges at local hospitals while the litigation is pending.
The clinic’s lawyers at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy group favoring abortion rights, reject that assertion and said the Supreme Court should analyze the case though the lens of the 2016 Texas ruling.
Should the Supreme Court uphold Louisiana’s measure, “that would be an unfortunate opening of the floodgates,” said Nancy Northup, the group’s president. Such a ruling would “wreak havoc on the ability of women to get access to reproductive healthcare in many states,” Northup added.
At the Hope clinic, blocked-off windows and security restrictions on gaining entry are aimed at anti-abortion activists, reflecting the hostility some local people feel toward abortion. A sign states “please do not feed (or speak to) the protestors.”
Shivering in the cold outside, two women, Cynthia Vaught and Angela Chagnard, sought the attention of patients going inside, hoping to counsel them not to terminate their pregnancies. Both said their opposition to abortion is based on their beliefs as Roman Catholics.
They said they hope the clinic closes.
“I would like there to be no abortion providers in the United States,” Vaught said. “Life is sacrosanct.”
For a graphic on state abortion laws, see here
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham