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Abortion Returns To The Supreme Court This Week With Case On Hospital Privileges


This week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the first major abortion case since two of President Trump's conservative nominees joined the court. The case is about admitting privileges. And here to explain what that means and the effect this case may have is NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon, who covers reproductive rights.

Hi, Sarah.


FADEL: So let's get right into it. What are the details here?

MCCAMMON: Well, first, I just want to say what this is not about. It is not about an outright ban on abortion. You might remember that a bunch of states have passed laws in the past year or two prohibiting abortion at very early stages of pregnancy, in many cases. Those are tied up in court, by and large. And that's not what this case is about.

It is looking, instead, at some of the requirements for doctors who perform abortions. So this Louisiana law that was passed in 2014 requires doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges. And that might sound like a minor issue, but the reality is that a law like this can really have the effect of limiting access to abortion without ever banning it.

FADEL: So it really will have far-reaching implications.


FADEL: But let's talk about this debate over the issue of hospital admitting privileges. What are the arguments on either side?

MCCAMMON: So anti-abortion rights groups who want this requirement to be imposed on doctors who provide abortions say it's about protecting women's health. It's about making sure patients are safe if a complication were to arise from an abortion.

I talked to Ben Clapper with Louisiana Right to Life. I spoke to him in his office last year. And he acknowledged that his ultimate goal is ending abortion.

BEN CLAPPER: Our goal as an organization, since we were founded, is to protect every human life, right? And you know - but for us, that means protecting the unborn child. But in the situation where abortion is legal in America, that also means, for us, protecting the health and safety of that woman.

MCCAMMON: So Clapper wants doctors to be subject to these kinds of requirements.

FADEL: So what do the doctors say?

MCCAMMON: Well, medical experts I've talked to say that getting those hospital admitting privileges is very difficult and unnecessary. And the effect can be that abortion is just inaccessible for a lot of people. Several major medical groups, including the American Medical Association, have signed onto an amicus brief opposing this law. They say hospital admitting privileges for abortion providers are not necessary and functionally are just an obstacle to the availability of abortion services.

A few months ago, after the court agreed to take the case, I talked to Dr. Maureen Phipps with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

MAUREEN PHIPPS: Having a physician who does not work in that hospital be required to have hospital privileges does not improve quality of care for women or safety of abortion care.

MCCAMMON: And Phipps points out that abortion has a very low complication rate. And in the rare case where hospital care is needed, she says women should go to an emergency room.

FADEL: So this isn't the first time this issue has come up, right?

MCCAMMON: Right. The Supreme Court addressed a very similar law a few years ago. It was that this was a key part of the case Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. It originated out of Texas. And at that time, back in 2016, the court said these kinds of state laws impose an undue burden on women seeking abortions and don't provide any significant medical benefit and therefore are unconstitutional.

But this is a very different court - much more conservative now with Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the bench. And Louisiana will argue that their law is a little bit different from the Texas law and should be upheld. If this law is upheld, it will pave the way for more states to impose similar laws and regulations. And this has been a big strategy of anti-abortion rights activists - to impose health regulations and restrictions on providers and clinics, which, in many cases, the medical community says are not necessary. And that can, in effect, end abortion in many places without ever banning it.

FADEL: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon. Sarah, thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "INGOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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