Fifth Circuit’s ruling on abortion regulations: to protect women’s health or a cover-up?

With a new abortion law on the books in Louisiana making putting more requirements in place that would affect access to abortions, the court’s intentions in its decision are uncertain.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman (AP).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has lifted a judge’s preliminary injunction on a Louisiana law that required abortion doctors to have admission privileges at hospitals within 30 miles from abortion clinics.  The law essentially requires that any physician performing abortions must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where the abortion is performed.

The law was ruled on in June of 2014, and eventually led to the District Court judge ruling to temporarily block the law in January of 2016 in the case of, June Medical Services v. Gee.  The lower court believed that the law “deprived 99% of Louisiana women of access to abortion,” which led to the preliminary injunction order.

[The Center for Reproductive Rights] argued that the law should be overturned because it places an “undue burden on a large percentage of women seeking abortions in Louisiana.”

The issue at the Appellate Court level was “whether the Louisiana Law placed an undue burden on a large fraction of women who would otherwise seek an abortion absent the law.”  The “undue burden” standard comes from the Supreme Court’s milestone ruling in the 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey.  Casey was based on a Pennsylvania abortion law that required certain signed statements and notifications from a woman’s husband before she could get an abortion.

In Casey, the Court ruled that the notification requirement placed an undue burden on married women.  The Court found that a law is invalid, “if its purpose or effect is to place substantial obstacles in the path of a woman seeking an abortion…”

The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights group, represents the clinics and the doctors challenging the law.  They argued that the law should be overturned because it places an “undue burden on a large percentage of women seeking abortions in Louisiana.”

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in their decision on February 24, 2016, disagreed with the abortion clinics and doctors, and found that the Louisiana abortion law raised no undue burden issue.  The decision from a three-judge panel stated, “we reversed the district court and permitted the law to go into effect because the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that the law placed an undue burden on a large fraction of women.”

The decision, according to The Center for Reproductive Rights, would mean that all but one provider of legal abortions in the state would be forced to close.  The law that was signed by Governor Bobby Jindal in June of 2014 will force the other three clinics to close due to their inability to gain admitting privileges from surrounding hospitals, unless the U.S. Supreme Court takes immediate action.

Opponents of the law believe that the main purpose behind the law is to make it harder, if not impossible for women to get abortions.

Opponents of the law believe that the main purpose behind the law is to make it harder, if not impossible for women to get abortions.  With the possible closings of abortion clinics, opponents believe that due to the law regulations, it will in fact make seeking an abortion harder.

One would think that an easy fix to this problem would be to have all abortion doctors gain admitting privileges at those hospitals within the thirty-mile radius of facilities that provide abortion services.  However, its implementation is not that simple.  According to some, these privileges are hard to come by.

Some of the issues raised in obtaining admitting privileges are that doctors live too far away from the hospitals or that they admit fewer patients needed to qualify for such privileges.  Also, it seems that, frequently, hospitals may be reluctant to issue such privileges with physicians who specialize in such a controversial procedure.

The main issue surrounding this controversial topic is trying to determine what the real reasons are behind implementing such regulations. 

Access to the “admitting privileges” that the law requires are being denied for reasons that are in no way related to a doctor’s qualifications.  If the law is aimed only towards the health of women and ensuring safety in those procedures, why would the implementation of the law cause hindrances in doctor’s gaining these privileges and in turn, in women obtaining the procedure?

One of the arguments in the lawsuit compares abortion procedures to “higher risk” outpatient procedures that do not require the same admitting privileges.  Supporters of the law and its regulations, say that the purpose of the admitting privileges is intended to protect women’s health.  They believe that the law will aid protect women who may experience complications that may require hospitalization.

The main issue surrounding this controversial topic is trying to determine what the real reasons are behind implementing such regulations.  Why require admitting privileges, which are not easily attainable?  Are the restrictions aimed toward limiting access to a woman’s right to abortion?

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights at the New York center, stated that abortion “is extremely safe” and the biases against abortion providers makes it difficult for physicians to get admitting privileges at hospitals.  According to Center of Reproductive Rights, major complications in abortion patients are very few – “less than a quarter of one percent” face complications.

Northup, states that the Fifth Circuit’s ruling will limit the safe and legal options available for women who decided to go through with an abortion—she describes this limitation as “thrust[ing] Louisiana into a reproductive health care crisis.”

Opponents of the law, along with Northup, believe that the “admitting privileges” requirement in conjunction with other laws, is just a cover-up to “dramatically curb access to legal abortion” and disguising the purpose of the law by stating that the law surrounds the health and welfare of women.  Planned Parenthood, spoke up on the issue, criticizing the admitting privileges laws, which the say are “specifically aimed at closing clinics, not actually improving patient care for a procedure that rarely leads to complications.”

On the flip side, supporters of the regulation deny any alternative motive behind the regulation, and stress that it is simply “a reasonable, common-sense safety measure,” Jeff Landry, Louisiana Attorney General.

The Center for Reproductive Rights plans on filing an emergency appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.  Depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court decides, the closest clinic for many woman in the State of Louisiana will be located in Jackson, Mississippi—a clinic that is only open because of a court order obtained by the Center of Reproductive Rights.

Similar laws have been passed in Texas, where women were forced to either drive hundreds of miles, leave the state, or forced to take matters into their own hands…

Similar laws have been passed in Texas, where women were forced to drive hundreds of miles, leave the state, or take matters into their own hands, stated Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.  The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on March 2, 2016, for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, concerning similar issues with opponents challenging the shut down in Texas’ abortion clinics.

According to USA Today, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to be divided, on a decision that could change the fate of abortion restrictions in numerous states.  Justice Anthony Kennedy is likely to hold the deciding vote on such a controversial topic that would affect not only women in Texas and Louisiana, but women nationwide.

Nancy Northup stated, “whether in Louisiana, Texas, or elsewhere, women should not be forced to run to court year after year to protect their fundamental rights.  It’s time for the U.S. Supreme Court to make it clear that politicians cannot sneak around the Constitution to rob women of their right to safe and legal abortion.”

Regardless of where a person stands on the topic of abortion, the right to safe medical procedures and the easy accessibility to such procedures is very essential—in fact it is the law.  With only eight justices currently on the Supreme Court, the final decisions in these cases will be one that could dramatically affect this generation.

Amaka Madu, Senior Staff Writer Emeritus
About Amaka Madu, Senior Staff Writer Emeritus (18 Articles)
Amaka Madu is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Political Science. Following her first year of law school, Amaka interned at the North Carolina Court of Appeals with Honorable Judge Tyson and during the second half of her summer, she participated in the Baylor Academy of the Advocate study abroad program in St. Andrews, Scotland. Amaka also currently serves as Secretary for Campbell University’s Black Law Student Association.
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