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Law School Case Brief

Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt - 136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016)

Rule:

There exists an undue burden on a woman’s right to decide to have an abortion, and consequently a provision of law is constitutionally invalid, if the purpose or effect of the provision is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability. Unnecessary health regulations impose an undue burden on that right.

Facts:

In 2013, the Texas Legislature enacted House Bill 2 (H. B. 2), which contained the two provisions challenged here. The “admitting-privileges requirement” provided that a physician performing or inducing an abortion must, on the date [of service], have active admitting privileges at a hospital located not further than 30 miles from the” abortion facility. The “surgical-center requirement” required an abortion facility to meet the minimum standards for ambulatory surgical centers under Texas law. Before the law took effect, a group of Texas abortion providers filed the Abbott case, in which they lost a facial challenge to the constitutionality of the admitting-privileges provision. After the law went into effect, petitioners, another group of abortion providers (including some Abbott plaintiffs), filed this suit, claiming that both the admitting-privileges and the surgical-center provisions violated the Fourteenth Amendment, as interpreted in Casey. They sought injunctions preventing enforcement of the admitting-privileges provision as applied to physicians at one abortion facility in McAllen and one in El Paso and prohibiting enforcement of the surgical-center provision throughout Texas. The district court enjoined enforcement of the provisions, holding that the surgical-center requirement imposed an undue burden on the right of women in Texas to seek previability abortions; that, together with that requirement, the admitting-privileges requirement imposed an undue burden in the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso, and West Texas; and that the provisions together created an “impermissible obstacle as applied to all women seeking a previability abortion.” The Fifth Circuit reversed in significant part. It concluded that res judicata barred the District Court from holding the admitting-privileges requirement unconstitutional statewide and that res judicata also barred the challenge to the surgical-center provision. Reasoning that a law is “constitutional if (1) it does not have the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus and (2) it is reasonably related to . . . a legitimate state interest,” the court found that both requirements were rationally related to a compelling state interest in protecting women's health.

Issue:

Did the admitting privileges requirement violate the Fourteenth Amendment as there was no significant health-related problem that the requirement helped to cure, and the resulting closure of facilities placed an undue burden on abortion access?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Court held that a pre-enforcement facial challenge did not have res judicata effect as to an as-applied challenge to the requirement under Tex. Health & Safety Code Ann. § 171.0031(a) that physicians performing abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles away, nor did the prior suit preclude a challenge to Tex. Health & Safety Code Ann. § 245.010(a), which required abortion facilities to meet surgical center requirements. The admitting privileges requirement violated the Fourteenth Amendment as there was no significant health-related problem that the requirement helped to cure, and the resulting closure of facilities placed an undue burden on abortion access. The Court also held that the surgical center requirement was unconstitutional as the record showed that it was unnecessary and would reduce the number of available facilities in the state to seven or eight.

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