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What Supreme Court's Ruling Might Mean For Abortion Rights In The U.S.


A big ruling from the Supreme Court today on abortion. The court voted 5 to 4 to strike down a Louisiana law that required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. That law could have left Louisiana with just one clinic performing abortions. The high court's decision was its first on abortion since the addition of two Trump appointees.

To talk more about what this ruling suggests might be ahead, we are joined by Mary Ziegler of Florida State University. She's author of the book "Abortion And The Law In America: Roe V. Wade To The Present."


MARY ZIEGLER: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So as we said, this was a 5-to-4 decision. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote his own opinion upholding the law, with the four more liberal justices writing a separate opinion to uphold the law. He diverged from them on why. Explain.

ZIEGLER: Roberts made clear that he is just as skeptical today about abortion rights as he was four years ago, when he joined the dissenting justices to say that an identical law was constitutional. But Roberts felt that precedent tied his hands and that he had no choice but to strike down a law that was functionally identical to one that the court had just invalidated. So I think the takeaway from that is kind of that there is no obvious win, in some ways, either for pro-choice or pro-life forces because you have, in Roberts, the court's new swing justice on abortion, a justice who is still very skeptical about the idea of abortion rights, but also a justice who seems committed to the idea of precedent.

SHAPIRO: Because today's decision did hinge so much on that 2016 Texas case, let's just remind listeners that involved a law struck down by the Supreme Court, where the court found there was no medical benefit to the admitting privileges requirement. But as you say, Roberts would have upheld it. He was in the minority there.

ZIEGLER: Right. And I think that's significant, obviously, because there are plenty of abortion restrictions that the Supreme Court has yet to evaluate. And John Roberts may well be willing to uphold those restrictions if doing so wouldn't require him to jettison a ruling that the court made either a few years ago or decades ago.

SHAPIRO: So even though today's ruling, on its face, is a win for abortion rights supporters, explain why abortion rights opponents might see a path forward for themselves and their cause.

ZIEGLER: Well, Roberts went to great pains to not join the liberals' opinion, either in form or in substance. And so anti-abortion leaders could certainly find, in Roberts' opinions, lots of clues about how to proceed, and there are no shortage of abortion restrictions that I can identify in the pipeline that Roberts might be more amenable to upholding.

I think one of the questions, of course, is whether abortion opponents actually have the patience to do that. We've seen, in recent weeks, Roberts joins the liberals on LGBTQ+ discrimination in employment, and in the DACA decision, we've seen some conservatives, including Senator Josh Hawley, essentially express their impatience and their unwillingness to wait on the Supreme Court and their requests, for example, that President Donald Trump give them some guarantee that the court will deliver results social conservatives like. That kind of thing is incredibly unproductive, from the standpoint of getting someone like John Roberts on board.

So I think there almost certainly are optimistic signs if you're opposed to abortion, but there are also more ominous signs that the anti-abortion movement is not going to be willing to wait to do what would be needed to convince this court to overrule Roe.

SHAPIRO: And remind us what other abortion cases are likely to come before the Supreme Court in the coming months.

ZIEGLER: In the coming months, it's harder to say. We don't know yet what the court will be hearing in its next term. Many states have laws that ban abortion at the 20th week of pregnancy on the theory that fetal pain is possible at that point. Those laws, I think, would work well for Roberts partly because they build on the court's last decision that favored abortion opponents, the decision upholding a ban on so-called partial birth abortion. There are laws banning dilation and evacuation, which is the most common second-trimester abortion procedure. Those, too, could build on that victory for abortion opponents from 2007.

And, recently, clearly, abortion opponents have been signaling their interest in laws that ban abortion for certain reasons, like race, sex or disability discrimination. The Supreme Court decided not to decide on one of those just last year, and I think many abortion opponents think Roberts would give those a serious look if they were to return to the court again. So as usual, there's no shortage of options if the Supreme Court does want to consider eliminating Roe v. Wade, and we should expect to see more of the same in the future.

SHAPIRO: Professor Mary Ziegler of Florida State University, thank you very much.

ZIEGLER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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