Pro-choice Supporters Energized Despite Divided Court on Abortion Case

Rally at SCOTUS on 3.2.2016

Rally at SCOTUS on 3.2.2016

Members NARAL Pro-choice NC and Planned Parenthood South Atlantic brought supporters from the Triangle to the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on March 02 to rally for abortion rights for all women. The SCOTUS was hearing oral arguments in Whole Women’s Health vs Hellerstedt, the case challenging TX’s recent restrictions to women’s access to safe and legal abortion. This case, if found in favor of the state of TX, will essentially make Roe v Wade a meaningless statute. We are cautiously optimistic, however, that the justices will affirm women’s right to access abortion with undue burdens. NARAL Pro-choice NC Policy Director and NCWU Communication Co-Director Chavi Koneru shared her experience at the rally.

On the blustery morning of March 2, hundreds gathered at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, including many who had traveled with us from North Carolina, in advance of oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt—the most significant reproductive rights case in recent history. The crowd sprawled out across the sidewalk and into the street. A man held a baby in one arm and a “Protect Abortion Access” sign in the other. Others held homemade signs, which read “Not Going Back.” An anti-choice crowd had also gathered, all clad in blue, their presence drowned out by the sea of purple pro-choice supporters.

As policy analyst for NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, I had the privilege of being one of very few who was able to enter the Supreme Court for the oral arguments. The walls inside the building vibrated with the muffled sound of the chanting outside: “Stop the sham!” “Stop the sham!”

The mood inside the courtroom was more somber as attendees contemplated the gravity of what was at stake in this case. The Justices would not only be determining the constitutionality of HB2 (the law passed in Texas that requires clinics to convert into ambulatory surgical centers, and requires doctors who provide abortion care to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital), but also whether states can continue to put barriers in place to prevent women from exercising their constitutional right to an abortion. As U.S. Solicitor General Verilli stated at the end of his oral arguments, if the court finds that HB2 should be upheld, what they will really be saying is that “this right exists only in theory and not in fact, going forward.”

At exactly 10am, the Justices entered the courtroom armed with questions for both sides. The seat formerly occupied by Justice Scalia sat noticeably empty and draped in black cloth. Within minutes, it was clear that this was going to be a battle for Justice Kennedy’s vote.

Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayer and Kagan pulled no punches in calling out the unfairness in applying certain rules to abortions that aren’t applied to more dangerous procedures like liposuctions and colonoscopies. Justice Breyer further pointed out the hypocrisy in the State’s argument.  He wondered if the State was truly concerned about the health of pregnant women seeking abortion. If the State was concerned for the women, weren’t they worried that the result of the restrictions would be to shut down clinics and cause later-term and more self-induced abortions? Breyer continued, “[s]o if the concern is this tiny risk of dying through complication in a clinic, is this a remedy that will in fact achieve the legislature’s health-saving purpose?”

Arguably the best moment in oral arguments came from Justice Ginsburg, fondly known as the Notorious RBG, in response to the Texas Solicitor General stating that a New Mexico facility was an option for women in El Paso, Texas seeking an abortion. Hunched over at her seat and speaking in a low voice, Justice Ginsburg replied “[t]hat’s odd that you point to a New Mexico facility. New Mexico doesn’t have any surgical ASC requirement, and it doesn’t have any admitting requirements. So if your argument is right, then New Mexico is not an available way out for Texas because Texas says we need to protect our women, we need these things. But send them off to New Mexico—New Mexico—New Mexico where they don’t get it either, no admitting privileges, no ASC. And that’s perfectly all right. Well, if that’s all right for the women in the El Paso area, why isn’t it right for the rest of the women in Texas?” The Solicitor General, of course, had no good answer.

The arguments in favor of Whole Woman’s Health seemed persuasive at the time but it will be a few months before the Justices release their decision. As I walked back down the steps of the Supreme Court and saw the even larger and more energized crowd of supporters rallying in cold weather, one thing became clear to me— no matter what the Justices decide—we will not let the right to abortion be easily taken away.