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Supreme Court Takes Up Most Significant Reproductive Rights Cases in Decades

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 13/11/2015 Elliot Mincberg

The Supreme Court announced today that it will decide on the constitutionality of severe restrictions adopted in Texas that threaten to make it virtually impossible for many women there to obtain safe and legal abortions. Coupled with the Court’s recent decision to hear cases on whether certain employers can effectively deny their female employees the contraceptive coverage they are entitled to receive under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the 2015-16 Supreme Court term could well become the most significant for women’s reproductive rights since the Court upheld the right to choose in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 - and almost as significant as when the Court overturned a law banning contraception 50 years ago in Griswold v. Connecticut.

The Texas case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, concerns a law imposing restrictions on clinics so severe that they would reduce the number of clinics that perform abortions in the state from more than 40 a few years ago to just 10, including none at all in the 500 miles between San Antonio and the New Mexico border. The state has claimed that the limits, requiring extensive hospital-like equipment and doctors with hospital admitting privileges even for clinics that offer abortions only through oral medication, are important to protect women’s health. These claims are belied not only by the medical evidence, but also by Texas politicians’ statements, such as Governor Rick Perry’s vow to “pass laws to ensure” that abortions are “as rare as possible.”  

That law clearly violates the 5-4 ruling of the Court in Casey, which upheld the basic right to choose of Roe v. Wade, and held that such laws must truly be important to protect women’s health and not impose an “undue burden” on that right. Will the Court uphold and correctly apply Casey and continue to protect reproductive rights? Given the stark divisions on the Court, the answer may well come down to the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the last member of the five-person Casey majority who is still on the Court today.

The Court has also agreed to hear what many are already calling “Hobby Lobby II.” Last year, the Court ruled 5-4 that owners of for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby could use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to raise religious objections and exempt themselves from providing contraceptive coverage to female employees as required by the ACA. To do so, the Court suggested that the companies could use the opt-out mechanism available to religiously-affiliated colleges and other nonprofits and inform the government of their religious objections, so the government could arrange for insurers to provide the coverage without cost to the employer. Now, however, many of these nonprofits are claiming that the opt-out mechanism itself violates RFRA. In other words, they want to not just refuse to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, they also want to make sure the government cannot make other arrangements, so that the women will be deprived of contraceptive coverage guaranteed by the ACA. 

Seven out of eight lower federal appeals courts have rejected these claims, ruling that simply telling the government of their objections and the identity of their insurer is not a “substantial burden” on nonprofits’ religious free exercise under RFRA and that the government has a compelling interest in providing contraceptive coverage. Justice Kennedy, who provided the fifth vote in Hobby Lobby, suggested in a concurring opinion that the opt-out was an appropriate accommodation. But if the Court upholds the nonprofits’ objections in Zubik v. Burwell, the result will be devastating to the ability of women to get contraceptive coverage, especially since for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby will likely make the same claim that religion allows them also to completely deprive their female employees of contraceptive coverage. Although not as coercive as the Connecticut ban on contraceptives overruled in Griswold, the result could well be even more devastating to reproductive freedom across the country, allowing employers to transform RFRA from a shield to protect religion into a sword to harm reproductive rights.

Both the clinic and the contraceptive cases are highly likely to produce divided 5-4 decisions that will be enormously important to women’s reproductive rights. With four of the justices in their eighties during the term of the President elected next year, these cases once again demonstrate the crucial stakes in the 2016 election for reproductive rights, as well as for so many other rights central to our liberty and freedom.

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