By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court faces a decision soon on whether to dive back into the contentious issue of abortion and consider allowing states to enforce new, stricter laws, including one from Mississippi that would close that state’s only licensed abortion clinic.
Since 2010, Republican-led states have passed an array of abortion-related laws. Some limit the time period during which women may obtain an abortion. Others set new restrictions for clinics, doctors or the drugs that induce early abortions.
Most of the new laws have been blocked or struck down by federal judges. On Friday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Idaho law on that banned abortions after 20 weeks. And until now, the Supreme Court has refused to hear states’ appeals to such cases.
For years, the justices have steered clear of most abortion cases. A decision to turn down the latest appeals, from Mississippi and North Carolina, would be a victory for abortion rights advocates. Abortion rights groups have argued that strict regulations imposed by conservative states were designed not to improve healthcare, but to deter and prevent pregnant women from getting legal abortions.
But attorneys for Mississippi and North Carolina have asked the justices to consider reviving their laws.
“It is high time for this court to revisit the issue” of abortion, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood told the justices in a brief filed in early May.
Hood is defending a 2012 law that requires all physicians at an abortion clinic to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, even if none of those hospitals will extend privileges to doctors who perform abortions.
The Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only abortion provider in Mississippi, had three doctors, only one of whom had the required admitting privileges.
A federal judge blocked the law from taking effect, and last year the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed.
The state said its abortion restrictions did not put an “undue burden” on women from Mississippi because they could cross state lines and obtain abortions in Memphis, Tenn., or Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana. But the appeals court judges rejected that argument.
“Mississippi may not shift its obligations to respect the established constitutional rights of its citizens to another state,” Judge E. Grady Jolly wrote in a 2-1 ruling.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper is asking the Supreme Court to revive his state’s law that would require doctors, before performing an abortion, to display and describe an ultrasound image of the developing fetus, even if the pregnant woman “averts her eyes” and tries to cover her ears.
Lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights, who sued on behalf of several North Carolina doctors, called the law the “most extreme” of several so-called “informed consent” statutes passed in recent years.
In December, the 4th Circuit Court in Richmond, in a 3-0 decision, upheld a judge’s order blocking enforcement on First Amendment grounds.
The government may not force a doctor to serve as “the mouthpiece for the state’s message,” the judges wrote. The law “compelled speech” by doctors that is “ideological in intent and in kind…. The clear and conceded purpose of the requirement is to support the state’s pro-life position,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a leading conservative jurist, wrote in his opinion blocking the state from enforcing the law.
At the Supreme Court, justices could announce as soon as Monday whether they will hear the Mississippi case. A decision on whether to hear North Carolina’s appeal should come by mid-June.
Attorneys for the states that have passed new restrictions say the court should clarify the law governing abortions. In 1992, in its last sweeping abortion ruling, the high court said states may regulate the procedures so long as their rules do not put an “undue burden” on women seeking to end their pregnancies.
Lawyers for Mississippi called that a “vague and amorphous standard” which has not provided “meaningful guidance” to lawmakers or judges.
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