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WASHINGTON — Louisiana is set to play a major role in the abortion debate when the U.S. Supreme Court takes up challenges to a 2014 state law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

There’s no shortage of people on both sides of the issue who see the case, scheduled to be heard March 4, as setting up a landmark decision that could dramatically shape the future of abortion access in America.

More than two dozen entities — including researchers, health care professionals and lawmakers — have voluntarily weighed in by filing briefings with the court. The only thing both sides appear to agree on: The weight of the Louisiana case.

Citing the case’s national implications, the U.S. Solicitor General has even requested time during oral arguments to speak in favor of upholding the law and support for restrictions on abortion providers.

“[A]n abortion regulation does not impose an unconstitutional ‘undue burden’ unless it creates a ‘substantial obstacle’ to a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion,” the federal government argues in a friend-of-the-court brief. “Because Act 620 does not create a substantial obstacle to obtaining an abortion, the Court need not review its benefits … . But if the Court were to do so, it should conclude the Act’s benefits are more than sufficient to justify the burdens that it imposes on women seeking abortions in Louisiana.”

The law has never taken effect as it's been challenged through the court system. It will be the first major abortion decision since President Donald Trump appointed two conservative justices to the high court.

If the Louisiana law is allowed to go into effect, doctors who terminate pregnancies would be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. It would be one of the most restrictive active abortion laws in the country, and a reversal of a previous high court ruling on a similar Texas law.

About 10,000 abortions are performed in Louisiana each year.

A group of nearly 200 Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, have urged the court to stick to existing law and suggested the case is being used to upend the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established the legal right to abortion.

“Act 620 represents but one example of a recent wave of state legislation designed to impede access to abortion services and undermine this Court’s (previous) holdings,” the lawmakers, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, wrote in a brief recently filed with the court. “These laws reflect those states’ attempts to revisit settled constitutional law, and many lawmakers, apparently emboldened by the change in composition of the Court, have openly admitted as much.”

All Republican members of the Louisiana delegation, meanwhile, signed onto a brief with another 200 of their GOP colleagues arguing that the case demonstrates the “unworkability” of Roe.

“Innocent life must be protected at every stage, and I urge the Supreme Court to uphold this law which ensures the health and safety regulations meant to protect Louisianans from the very abortionists who don't want high standards,” said U.S. Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Jefferson Republican who is one of the leading signatures on the GOP-backed brief.

Outside of the halls of Congress, a group of 80 current, former and incoming Louisiana state legislators have also voiced their support before the court, including incoming Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat who sponsored the bill as a House member.

Those who support abortion rights have argued that it's an unnecessary restriction that threatens to shutter clinics in the state. There are currently three abortion providers in Louisiana — one each in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport. That's down from five when Act 620 passed the Louisiana Legislature five years ago.

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“All eyes must be on the Supreme Court come March. This case will have lasting consequences for abortion access across the country,” said Center for Reproductive Rights CEO Nancy Northup. “Many states have been openly defying Supreme Court decisions in an effort to criminalize abortion. At this critical juncture, the Court needs to set those states straight.”

Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill, who is arguing the case for the state Department of Justice, said the law is a common sense protection and it should be treated separately from the overturned Texas law.

“Women deserve better than incompetent providers that put profits over people,” she said. “This bipartisan legislation is necessary because Louisiana abortion providers have a long documented history of medical malpractice, disciplinary actions, and violations of health and safety standards.”

Abortion rights advocates challenging the law had argued that the Supreme Court should have struck down the law immediately because they believe the court already ruled on the matter when it overturned a similar Texas law three years ago.

But the court, which has seen a turnover in justices since that ruling, instead opted to further review the case.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed to uphold Louisiana Act 620, ruled that, though identical legislation, “unlike in Texas, (Louisiana's law) does not impose a substantial burden on a large fraction of women” and would affect, at most, 30 percent of Louisiana women.

The high court's decision to delay the law's implementation, just hours before it was set to take effect in February, came on a 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the more liberal wing of the court — Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's appointees, were not on the bench in 2016 when the court, in a 5-3 decision, deemed the Texas admitting privileges law unconstitutional.

In the 5-4 decision in February to delay implementation of the Louisiana law, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh both sided with allowing the law to go into effect.

Louisiana currently bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and requires a 24-hour waiting period between first consultation and when a pregnancy can be terminated. The state Legislature has passed laws that would restrict abortion to 15 weeks of pregnancy or to when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, about six weeks of pregnancy. Both of those laws, which were signed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, would go into effect only if similar laws in Mississippi survive legal challenges.

 

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.