On June 29, the Supreme Court overturned an abortion restriction law in its decision in June Medical Services LLC v. Russo. The case posed a direct threat to abortion rights in the United States, and the decision is a win for women’s rights. Although the court has a conservative, anti-abortion majority, this decision was no doubt shaped by the nationwide rebellion against racism. Justice John Roberts’s vote with the four “liberal” justices on the basis of precedent falls in line with other recent decisions in which the court has decided NOT to further attack the rights of oppressed groups of people during a nationwide uprising against racism.
The case centered on a Louisiana anti-abortion law that could have made Louisiana the first state without de facto legal abortion access since the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe V. Wade that legalized abortion in the United States.
The decision in June Medical Services v. Russo settled a challenge to Louisiana’s Act 620, passed in 2014 but subsequently blocked, that required abortion providers to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic. Laws requiring admitting privileges are a form of “targeted restrictions on abortion providers,” or “TRAP” laws — which impose severe and medically unnecessary requirements on outpatient abortion clinics and women’s healthcare centers. Such laws have had devastating effects on women’s health and ability to access abortion services.
Admitting privileges are not easy to acquire by any means. Only two abortion providers in Louisiana have them. One is retired.
The June Medical Services case was virtually identical to a previous Texas case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2016. The court found the law placed undue burden on women by requiring doctors to have medically unnecessary hospital admitting privileges.
According to a 2018 survey of abortion providers released by the Feminist Majority Foundation, there are startling levels of anti-abortion violence and harassment directed towards clinics and providers. Reports show that a quarter of clinics across the country have experienced the most severe threats of violence, including death threats, stalking and blocking clinic access. Nearly half of U.S. clinics reported having experienced at least one incident of severe harassment, such as a break-in, robbery, or vandalism. Eighty-eight percent of clinics reported being subjected to disruptive protests and demonstrations that in some places are occurring daily or weekly.
Anti-abortion laws, such as Louisiana’s Act 620, impact poor and working women — especially women of color. Louisiana has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country, with Black women making up 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths. In 2017, a District Court found that Act 620 placed undue burdens on low-income women and women of color in Louisiana. During the District Court case, a clinic director gave testimony that approximately 70 to 90 percent of women who receive abortions at her clinic are poor or low-income. In its ruling striking down the law, the District Court cited that 75 percent of women seeking abortions in Louisiana are already mothers.
Over the last two decades, the rightwing’s strategy has been to chip away at abortion access by passing restrictive laws state-by-state and even in some cities. Between 2011 and 2019, states passed over 1,000 anti-abortion measures. The laws vary from TRAP laws to bills based on false science and misogyny that prohibit abortions after a specific point in pregnancy, require waiting periods before seeking and/or obtaining an abortion, biased counseling as a precondition and slew of other requirements.
The assault on abortion access does not end there. Amidst a global pandemic, Texas, Ohio, and Mississippi lawmakers have attempted to ban abortion access by including abortions in the non-essential procedures and medical procedures that need to be delayed. The assault on abortion rights relies heavily on the promotion of false science and medically unnecessary requirements. The multiple bans, bills, and laws utilize pseudoscience to falsely claim, for example, that the fetal heartbeat is detectable at six weeks. From bans to state-by-state laws with false science and scare tactics in its arsenal, the rightwing is seeking to generate the legal challenge that will ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade.
Women’s access to abortion and reproductive service is not a moral issue but is instead a health issue, a matter between patients and our providers. Access to abortion is fundamental to women’s health, safety, and control of our bodies. The threat of dismantling Roe v. Wade, which secured the right to abortion, puts women’s lives and rights on the line. Outlawing abortion does not stop women from getting abortions, but it does make it less safe.
In the context of the coordinated right-wing assault on abortion rights, the Supreme Court decision in June Medical Services is a victory. It is also the third such victory for oppressed people in the United States at the Supreme Court level in the last two weeks. The Supreme Court declared that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ workers from discrimination and overturned the Trump administrations attack on the dreamers.
A central factor in the seemingly progressive turn in a court with a minority of liberal judges and a slew of newer Trump appointees is the nationwide revolt against racism. That the Black community of Minneapolis rebelled, igniting a nationwide revolt in which millions of people have protested in the face of curfews and repression over the month, set the political context for the decisions of the Supreme Court. It is not nine elite justices who determine our fates, it is the people ourselves in motion that have the power to make substantive political change. The capitalist government doesn’t act in the interest of the majority of us unless they feel forced to do so.
As in the case of the DACA program decision, Roberts joined the majority somewhat on a technicality. Further attacks on abortion will continue to percolate up from the states; the overall state of reproductive rights in the U.S. is terrible. At least 16 cases that would restrict abortion access are in lower courts, and 25 abortion bans have been passed in more than 12 states in the past year.That said, the nationwide uprising against racist police terror should point the way for the direction the women’s movement needs to take. The Supreme Court needs to fear the wrath of people in the street who uphold a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.