What Attorneys in Texas' Abortion Case Will Argue Before the Supreme Court

Feb 29, 2016

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The case is a challenge to a controversial Texas law proponents say makes abortions safer in the state. It could set new limits for what kind of regulations state lawmakers can impose on abortion providers.


Sarah Wheat with Planned Parenthood says a lot of what you see at the group’s ambulatory surgical center in Austin, which is one of only two facilities in the city where a woman can still obtain a legal abortion, is dictated by state law.

That law is HB2, which in 2013 law imposed some strict regulations on abortion clinics throughout Texas. The guidelines it created, Wheat says, fill a 150-page book. That includes rules for how often air has to ventilate in a clinic, how wide hallways have to be and even the dimensions of the janitor's closet.

“It is completely unnecessary from a medical perspective and does nothing to enhance our patients’ care or safety,” Wheat said.

And that's what attorneys representing Texas abortion providers will be arguing in front of the Supreme Court.

They say HB2 was passed in an effort to make it harder for women to access legal abortions in the state.

A recovery room at the Planned Parenthood facility in South Austin.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT

The bill’s author, State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, says that’s not true. She says her bill is meant protect women’s health.

“House Bill 2 was explicitly created to provide Texas women with the highest standard of health care,” Laubenberg said during a press conference in Austin earlier this month. “That includes holding abortion facilities to the minimum standards for ambulatory surgical centers, and that abortion doctors must have active admitting privileges at a local hospital.”

Those two provisions in HB2 are what will be scrutinized the most. The Supreme Court put a stay on them. Providers argue they’ve had the biggest impact their ability to provide services.

“Those two requirements are tremendously burdensome because hospitals don’t want to let abortion providers join their staff, and abortion providers have no need to be on the staff of a hospital, because abortion is so safe they simply don’t admit patients,” said David Brown, a staff attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, a group representing the abortion providers.

Brown said requiring clinics to operate like mini-hospitals is also a burden.

But is it an “undue burden?” It's the test borne out of a decades-old Supreme Court case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Texas’ case could end up clarifying what undue burden means moving forward. John Seago with Texas Right To Life, an anti-abortion group, says for years undue burden standard has been too broad.

“And it is actually thrown against every pro-life law passed in the United States and, hopefully, the Supreme Court in this case will clarify what an undue burden is,” Seago said.

Seago and other proponents hope the Supreme Court will say HB2 doesn’t represent an undue burden, but instead is in the state’s interest.

Opponents warn if the court rules in favor of HB2, or casts a tied vote, the state will only have fewer 10 abortion clinics throughout the state of Texas.