What to Know About the Abortion Case in Front of the Supreme Court

Why does this case matter? How might the outcome impact you?

March 2, 2016, 1:10 AM

— -- Today, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. But why does this case matter? How might the outcome impact you? We've asked Kate Shaw, an ABC News contributor and an assistant professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, to help provide some clarity.

1) Let’s start with the basics. Who is arguing what in the case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt? And what do they want?

First, a little background. In 2013, Texas passed the two laws at issue here: 1) a requirement that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital; and 2) a requirement that abortion facilities comply with the requirements for ambulatory surgical centers.

The plaintiffs in the case are clinics and doctors that provide abortion services, among other things; Whole Woman’s Health is one of those clinics. They have challenged the Texas laws, arguing that there’s no evidence that the laws promote health and that they’re really about impeding women’s access to abortion. If the laws go into effect, they claim, the number of clinics in Texas will drop to 10 or fewer (the laws are largely on hold at the moment, while the Supreme Court considers the case).

Dr. John Hellerstedt, the Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services -- the agency that enforces the challenged laws -- argues in response that Texas is just trying to ensure patient safety and improve standards of care. He also argues that it’s the job of legislatures, not courts, to decide whether laws like these are medically necessary.

2) Okay, got it. How did the case make it to the Supreme Court?

The plaintiffs challenged these laws, and they won in the trial court. The court of appeals reversed, and the Supreme Court took the case and reinstated the trial court order blocking the laws from going into effect while it considers the case.

3) What are the possible outcomes? And how might each impact folks across the country?

This has the potential to be the most important abortion case in nearly 25 years. The two most significant abortion cases the court has decided -- Roe v. Wade, in 1973, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in 1992 -- found that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, at least prior to viability, but also found that states have a legitimate interest in regulating abortion. But the court hasn’t provided much guidance about when state regulation crosses the line, and this case could do that.

There are at least three possible outcomes (and they mostly turn on Justice Kennedy, who holds the key vote in this case). First, if Justice Kennedy thinks the regulations have gone too far, they’ll likely be struck down 5-3, which will make it harder for states to pass abortion regulations that seriously interfere with women’s ability to obtain abortions. If Justice Kennedy concludes that the Texas laws are permissible, the court will likely divide 4-4, affirming the lower court opinion and leaving the regulations in effect, but making no law for the rest of the country. And there is a third possibility -- that the chief justice could hold the case over for re-argument some time next term, when the court may have a ninth justice in place.

4) How will the recent death of Justice Scalia impact this case?

Justice Scalia was almost certain to side with Texas in this case, which means that the best Texas can now hope for is a 4-4 tie.

5) When are we going to know the outcome? Any time frame?

We’ll have an answer of some sort by the end of the term, which is typically the last week in June.

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