Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt

136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016)



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 that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion impose an undue burden on the right.


The case involved the constitutionality of Tex. Health Safety Code Ann. § 171.0031(a), particularly its provisions on “admitting-privileges requirement” which requires  physicians performing or inducing an abortion to have active admitting privileges at a hospital located not further than 30 miles from the” abortion facility, and the “surgical-center requirement” that requires an “abortion facility” to meet the “minimum standards for ambulatory surgical centers” under Texas law. The statute was once disputed prior to its enforcement through a facial challenge which lost. After the statute took effect, petitioners challenged the statute on the ground that it resulted on a significant drop on facilities providing abortion due to the costs involved in compliance while increasing patient traffic. The district court enjoined enforcement of the statute due to the impermissible obstacle it created to women seeking a pre-viability abortion. The judgment was reversed on appeal on the ground that the suit was barred by res judicata due to the unsuccessful facial challenge, and that the enforcement of the statute is reasonably related to a compelling state interest in protecting women’s health.


Is the present suit barred by res judicata, and is the statute constitutional?


The suit is not barred by res judicata and the disputed provisions of the statute are unconstitutional.


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. Claim preclusion prohibits “successive litigation of the very same claim,”  but petitioners' as-applied post-enforcement challenge and facial pre-enforcement challenge do not present the same claim. Changed circumstances showing that a constitutional harm is concrete may give rise to a new claim. As for the constitutionality of the provisions of the statute, 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. Likewise, 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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