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Future of abortion rights is before the Supreme Court today

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today in a high-profile abortion case that’s rooted in Louisiana but could have major implications in states around the country.

The case, June Medical Services LLC v. Russo, centers on a Louisiana law that requires any physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, which critics warn would severely hamper access to those services.

“Access to abortion is hanging by a thread in this country, and this case is what could snap that thread,” Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement when the court agreed to hear the case. “Three years ago, the Supreme Court decided that laws like this one in Louisiana had no purpose other than to make abortion more difficult to access.”

The high court previously struck down a similar law in Texas, but abortion opponents hope the court’s stance on the issue will shift in the wake of the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sided with the court’s liberal wing in the Texas case. Kennedy has since been replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who previously voted against an effort to temporarily block the Louisiana law.

Opponents of the Louisiana law argue that it would harm women in Louisiana, and would leave only one physician providing abortions in the entire state. That can’t possibly meet the needs of the roughly 10,000 women who seek abortion services in Louisiana each year, they told the Supreme Court.

The state law, critics warn, is unconstitutional because it offers no benefits to women’s health that could justify the burdens on abortion access.

A coalition of states is urging the court to strike down Louisiana’s law. It imposes “an undue burden on the constitutional right to access abortion services for the same reasons this Court articulated … when it invalidated Texas’s similar requirement,” they wrote in a brief to the court. The Louisiana admitting-privileges requirement “also imposes devastating burdens on access to abortion services.”

Another group of states argued in a brief that the high court should reject the appeal because the challengers lack the legal “standing” to sue. Alternatively, those states urge the Supreme Court to uphold Louisiana’s law.

North Carolina is not a party to either brief.

In February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to temporarily block the law from taking effect. Four conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh — said they would have denied the request to stay the law.

In a dissent, Kavanaugh wrote that he would have allowed the law to take effect because the appeals court had said “the new law would not affect the availability of abortions from … the four doctors who currently perform abortions at Louisiana’s three abortion clinics.”

Kennedy was the swing vote on a host of contentious issues, including on the 2016 decision in the case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which rejected a Texas abortion law, finding it overly burdensome. The Louisiana law now in question is nearly identical to the Texas law that was struck down by the high court when Kennedy was on the bench.

A federal appeals court upheld Louisiana’s law despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Texas case, setting the stage for the arguments this week.

The Court is expected to issue an opinion before the end of its term this summer.

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