The U.S. Supreme Court is due on Monday to decide its first major abortion case since 2007, a challenge by abortion providers to a Republican-backed Texas law that imposed strict regulations on their doctors and facilities.
Hundreds of people, including activists on both sides of the dispute, gathered outside the Supreme Court building on a sunny summer day in anticipation of a ruling on an issue that continues to divide Americans as it does people in many countries.
Texas has said its law, passed by a Republican-led legislature and signed by a Republican governor in 2013, was aimed at protecting women’s health. The abortion providers have said the regulations are medically unnecessary and intended to shut down clinics. Since the law was passed, the number of abortion clinics in Texas, the second-most-populous U.S. state with about 27 million people, has dropped from 41 to 19.
The justices must decide whether the law, one of a number of statutes enacted in Republican-led states that put restrictions on abortion, placed an undue burden on women exercising their constitutional right to end a pregnancy established in the court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
The normally nine-justice court was left one member short after the Feb. 13 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who consistently opposed abortion in past rulings. The court is evenly divided with four conservative justices and four liberals, raising the possibility of a 4-4 ruling.
Such a split would leave in place a lower-court decision upholding the law but would set no nationwide legal precedent on whether other states could enact similar measures.
Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration supports the challenge brought by the abortion providers.
Monday marks the last day that the court will be issuing decisions in its current term, which began last October.
The Texas law required abortion doctors to have “admitting privileges,” a type of formal affiliation that can be hard to obtain, at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic so they can treat patients needing surgery or other critical care.
The law also required clinic buildings to possess costly, hospital-grade facilities. These regulations covered numerous building features such as corridor width, the swinging motion of doors, floor tiles, parking spaces, elevator size, ventilation, electrical wiring, plumbing, floor tiling and even the angle that water flows from drinking fountains.
The “admitting privileges” provision already has gone into effect while the facilities standards have been put on hold.
The last time the justices decided a major abortion case was nine years ago when they ruled 5-4 to uphold a federal law banning a late-term abortion procedure.
Some U.S. states have pursued a variety of restrictions on abortion, including banning certain types of procedures, prohibiting it after a certain number of weeks of gestation, requiring parental permission for girls until a certain age, imposing waiting periods or mandatory counselling, and others.
Americans remain closely divided over whether abortion should be legal. In a Reuters/Ipso online poll involving 6,769 U.S. adults conducted from June 3 to June 22, 47 percent of respondents said abortion generally should be legal and 42 percent said it generally should be illegal.
Views on abortion in the United States have changed very little over the decades, according to historical polling data.