WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday blocked enforcement of a Louisiana law that could force all but one of the state’s abortion clinics to close, a sign that a similar law in Texas also could be in peril.
The justices effectively reversed an order by the federal appeals court in New Orleans that allowed Louisiana to begin enforcing its 2014 clinic regulation law even as it is being challenged in the courts.
The law requires doctors who provide abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
Two clinics, in Bossier City and Baton Rouge, that had already stopped providing abortions in response to the appellate ruling will reopen, and a third clinic in Shreveport that faced imminent closure will remain open, said the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the clinics.
Clinic advocates have said the admitting privileges requirement could leave Louisiana with just one abortion clinic, located in New Orleans.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said the state would continue defending the law. “We remain confident that we will prevail on the merits,” Landry said.
Proponents of the admitting privileges requirement say it is a matter of protecting patients’ safety at clinics. But others criticized the rules, which have been voted into law by legislatures across the country, as medically unnecessary and designed to limit access to abortion.
The high court’s order, with only Justice Clarence Thomas noting his dissent, came two days after the justices heard arguments in a major abortion case from Texas and just hours after they voted in a private meeting on the outcome of that case.
A vote for the clinics in Louisiana could signal that Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose vote is crucial to both sides, also will be a decisive fifth vote in favor of abortion clinics in Texas.
The cases are at different stages in the legal process, but they involve similar laws and actions by the same federal appeals court, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
The appeals court was willing to let both states enforce the admitting privileges law. Additionally, the Texas law forces clinics to meet hospital-like standards for outpatient surgery.
The Supreme Court has previously put the Texas surgical center standards on hold and cited that action in its order Friday. In 2013, however, the court split 5-4 in allowing Texas to require doctors to have hospital admitting privileges to perform abortions in clinics.
Opponents of the laws said half the 40 clinics that were open in Texas before the 2013 law closed as a result. There would be only 10 clinics left in the state if the Texas law were to be fully enforced.
Louisiana’s law was struck down by a trial judge, but the appeals court said last week that the law could be enforced.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Jennifer Elrod rejected the clinics’ argument that the appeals court should heed earlier Supreme Court action preventing Texas from fully implementing the regulations.
In their briefs to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the abortion clinics argued moving forward with the new rules would eventually leave Louisiana with just one doctor performing abortions. Several other doctors who have been performing abortions in the state have been unable to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
“That lone doctor, working in one clinic, cannot meet the need for approximately 10,000 abortions in Louisiana each year, a need that was previously met by six physicians in five clinics across the state,” the attorneys wrote. The state’s fifth abortion clinic in Metairie closed recently but before the privileges requirement went into effect.
The state countered that the argument that Louisiana would be left with just one doctor performing abortions at one clinic is “manifestly false,” saying that two other doctors already had admitting privileges at hospitals in both Shreveport and New Orleans.
Kathaleen Pittman, spokeswoman for Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, said abortion clinics in Shreveport and New Orleans were the only ones operating at the time of the Supreme Court decision Friday afternoon.
“With the closure of two clinics, the remaining two clinics have been struggling to meet the needs of women,” Pittman said. “We are delighted the Supreme Court has intervened.”
While the Shreveport clinic has been open, Pittman has said the doctor there is likely to quit unless more clinics are allowed to stay open, saying it isn’t tenable for just a couple doctors to perform all the abortions in the state.
Benjamin Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life, said in a statement Friday that he was disappointed the Supreme Court blocked Louisiana admitting privileges law until the court rules on the Texas law in June.
“Abortion physicians shouldn’t have exceptions to safety standards, and we hope the Supreme Court will ultimately decide to protect Louisiana’s right to enact appropriate regulations to protect the health of its citizens,” he said.
Bill Rittenberg, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said he was pleased with the temporary ruling and optimistic about what the court might do in the future.
“When I see 7-1, it puts a smile on my face,” he said.
Advocate staff writer Danielle Maddox Kinchen contributed to this report.