, WASHINGTON, Mar 1 – The US Supreme Court hears its most important abortion case in decades on Wednesday, with all eyes on the critical swing vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The case has huge implications on this hot-button issue that could determine the availability of abortion services across the country, just as a highly polarized American electorate goes to the polls in this election year.
But the sudden death of stalwart conservative Justice Antonin Scalia could complicate the outcome of this high-stakes debate.
The vacancy on the nine-seat bench leaves the court evenly split 4-4 between conservatives and liberals.
If the liberal justices fail to swing Kennedy to their side, a lower court decision that had ended up before the Supreme Court will be upheld, in this case meaning a restrictive Texan abortion law would stay in place.
The vote of Kennedy, who helped draft a ruling 24 years ago that reaffirmed a woman’s right to abortion and said any state restrictions could not impose an “undue burden” to that right, is thus critical.
The Texan bid is part of a series of conservative efforts seeking to challenge the historic Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in 1973.
The 2013 Texas law at the heart of the case imposes restrictions on abortion clinics so rigorous that activists say they could force 75 percent of the facilities to go out of business.
That would leave just 10 abortion clinics in the sprawling state with an estimated 5.4 million women of child-bearing age.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of women are having or will have to seek abortion services far from their homes, and face a weeks-long wait.
Under the law, doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and the clinics must meet the standards of an ambulatory surgical center, a medical facility for low-risk surgeries.
Backers of the law say it aims to protect women’s health.
But critics say that’s a pretext for a thinly veiled Republican attempt to have Roe v Wade overturned.
– Out of reach, expensive –
“I am highly skeptical of the claims that these measures are intended to safeguard women’s health,” said Sherry Colb of Cornell Law School.
“They operate as stumbling blocks in the path of clinics that had already been providing safe (and legal) abortions.”
The strategy of drastically reducing the number of available clinics would make travel “prohibitive” and “may pose an insurmountable obstacle for many women who are seeking to terminate their pregnancies,” Colb added.
In a recent study, the Texas Policy Evaluation Project found that the law has triggered long waits, surcharges and sometimes prevented women from ready access to a clinic.
“This case is so important nationwide because some of the opponents of the right to abortion have enacted and are trying to enact similar laws in other states,” said attorney Michael Dell, who represents women who had abortions.
He warned that more clinics will close and abortion opponents will impose more restrictions and burdens on abortion providers if the Texas law is upheld.
Last week, a court backed a similar law in Louisiana that is threatening to close three of the state’s four abortion clinics.
– ‘Not ready to be a mom’ –
More than 110 female lawyers and other women in the legal profession filed supporting briefs largely aimed at Kennedy in which they described how their abortions allowed them to plan for their subsequent professional and family lives.
“To the world, I am an attorney who had an abortion, and, to myself, I am an attorney because I had an abortion,” read an email from one of the women listed in the filing.
In all, dozens of so-called amicus briefs have been filed in support of both sides of the issue.
In a video from the Center for Reproductive Rights, actress Amy Brenneman recalls her personal experience with abortion.
“I was wise enough to know I’m not ready to be a mom,” she says.
“I look back at my 21-year-old self… and I feel so blessed that I was in a place where I wasn’t shamed and I was supported, and it didn’t scar me for life.”
From 2011 to 2014, US states adopted no fewer than 231 new abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
And the number of states considered hostile to abortion rights — with at least four types of abortion restrictions — more than doubled from 13 in 2000 to 27 in 2014.