Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt was argued at the Supreme Court on March 2, 2016 and decided on June 27, 2016.

This case is about two provisions of a Texas law: one requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles from the clinic, and one requiring abortion clinics to have facilities equal to an outpatient surgical center. Proponents of the law say these are common sense ways to protect women’s health, while opponents argue that they are unconstitutional measures that will close 75% of the abortion facilities in the state without positively impacting women’s health.

Case Summary

Case Briefs

Oral Argument

Decision

Legal/Content Background

The Supreme Court has ruled that the constitutional right to privacy includes a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. Even though the words “right to privacy” do not appear in the written Constitution, the Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution does guarantee Americans some degree of privacy, or freedom from government intervention into their private lives.

In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court ruled that this right to privacy includes a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. As is the case with most constitutional rights, however, the government may place limits on the right to abortion. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court said that the government could restrict this right only if the restriction was necessary to fulfill a very important government interest. The Court said that the government’s interests in protecting women’s health and protecting fetal life in early pregnancy do not trump a woman’s right to privacy. However, as the pregnancy proceeds, abortions become more dangerous for women and the developing fetus becomes viable; that is, it could survive outside the mother. Therefore, the governments’ interests do outweigh a woman’s right to privacy in late pregnancy. The government may completely prohibit abortions during this stage, as long as there is an exception for abortions necessary for the health of the mother.

Twenty years after Roe, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court modified its rule on government regulation of abortion. The Supreme Court said that while women have a right to an abortion before the fetus is viable, states can impose restrictions as long as the restrictions do not impose an “undue burden” on the woman—in other words, as long as the purpose of the law is not to restrict the actual right of a woman to get an abortion, and as long as the law does not create a “substantial obstacle” to the ability to get an abortion. 

But that decision did not settle the debate about how far the government can go in restricting abortion. Now the Supreme Court will determine whether regulations like those in Texas are constitutional. 

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