In a narrow victory for abortion rights, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana anti-abortion law in June Medical Services v. Russo on Monday. The Louisiana law would have required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, which would have effectively eliminated all clinics in the state but one. In striking it down, the Court uphold the precedent it set back in 2016, when it declared a nearly identical Texas law unconstitutional. The ruling will prevent two of Louisiana’s three remaining abortion clinics from being shuttered, protecting abortion access for the nearly 1 million women of reproductive age.
That’s worth celebrating, but the fight to secure abortion rights is far from won. Chief Justice John Roberts, who cast the deciding vote, made it clear that while he generally supports courts being bound to their prior decisions, he still does not support the decision from the 2016 Texas case where he joined in the dissent.
He can’t be counted on to uphold abortion access in future decisions—and he will preside over many future decisions. At least 16 other cases of restrictive state abortion laws could be on their way to the Supreme Court, including Tennessee’s recent “heartbeat” bill and Alabama’s near-total abortion ban.
In fact in 2019, there was a surge in abortion bans at the state level. Abortion opponents continue attacking reproductive rights in 2020, even going as far as weaponizing the current public health crisis of COVID-19 to close clinics and deny care.
The scrapped Louisiana and Texas laws are both examples of TRAP (“targeting regulation of abortion providers”) laws, a political tactic to limit access to abortion services without overtly outlawing them. Under the guise of health and safety precautions, TRAP laws close clinics, roll back affordability, and overall make it more difficult to obtain services. They are part of a larger ideological agenda to chip away at abortion rights until they’re functionally gone.
This week’s Supreme Court decision blocked one specific TRAP law, but not TRAP laws in general. In one form or another, they are still on the books in 24 U.S. states, and this week is far from the last time that federal courts will be ruling on them.
In addition to being gender-oppressive, TRAP laws are also racially oppressive. Black women are more at risk for negative reproductive health outcomes than their white counterparts. It’s no coincidence that states with the most restrictive reproductive health regulations also have the poorest maternal health outcomes, which disproportionately affect Black women. States that pass abortion restrictions tend to be the states with the largest Black populations. For example, Louisiana has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country, with Black women making up 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths.
Black women experience higher unemployment rates and receive lower earnings on average than white women. That coupled with the obstacles thrown up by anti-abortion legislation—longer wait times, which means taking time off of work and finding childcare, and fewer providers, which means traveling farther and paying more—effectively makes abortion care impossible for many Black women.
As our nation struggles to reckon with police brutality and systemic racism, it is important to acknowledge the racial dimensions of the continuing assault on reproductive rights. Abortion access is a racial justice issue. Restricting abortion access disproportionately affects Black Americans, deepening other inequalities. Anti-abortion laws undermine Black communities and civil rights. In addition to their harm to reproductive rights, TRAP laws are racist.
They are also part of a larger agenda to challenge Roe v. Wade, sending more virulent anti-abortion state laws to the Supreme Court in the hope that some will be upheld, and serve as levers to eventually strike Roe down. So while June Medical Services v. Russo is a victory worth noting, it’s just one of many fights to come to make abortion affordable and accessible for all.
This op-ed by Vina Smith-Ramakrishnan is a Werner Fornos Fellow with the Population Institute originally ran on July 2, 2020 in Newsweek