June’s Big Week for Women in the Supreme Court


THE LAST WEEK OF JUNE was a big week for women in the Supreme Court, with three rulings directly affecting women’s rights and safety. The court ruled in favor of women in each instance, two of which involved access to abortion, and one concerning possession of firearms by people convicted of domestic abuse. Here’s a rundown of the rulings.

Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt

On June 27th, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 to repeal a Texas law from 2013 that placed restrictions on abortion clinics and providers in the state. One restriction stated that clinics where abortion services are provided must meet criteria to qualify as “ambulatory surgical centers,” which would mandate that clinics make a host of costly renovations, and ultimately lead to shutting down half of the state’s clinics.

The justification given by proponents of the restriction is that complications that can occur during abortions may require the types of intervention that ambulatory surgical centers are equipped to perform. But opponents, consisting of five major medical associations, cited the extremely low rate of complications that occur with abortion procedures, concluding that the massive reduction of access was not justified by this argument.

The second restriction struck down by the Court required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Proponents claimed that this would help ensure physicians’ competence, since hospitals monitor doctors who have admitting privileges. Also, they rely on the complications argument above to say that such privileges make it easier for women to get treatment at a hospital should something go wrong.

But there are lots of reasons a physician may not be granted admitting privileges to a nearby hospital, including if the physician lives far away, if he or she can’t admit the minimum number of patients mandated by the relationship, or if the hospital refuses to grant the privileges on moral or religious grounds.

This ruling impacts not only Texas, but several other states that were pushing similar restrictions. The next Court decision discussed from this week gives two examples.

Rejection of appeals

Mississippi and Wisconsin both tried to appeal to the Court to have admitting privilege requirements for abortion providers reinstated. On June 28th, one day after striking down the restriction in the big Texas ruling, the Court rejected those appeals. This was an immediate affirmation of the previous day’s ruling, as well as a significant win for women in Mississippi since, if upheld, the restriction would have probably closed the state’s only remaining abortion clinic.

Voisine v. United States

According to federal law, people convicted of domestic assault misdemeanors are not allowed to purchase or possess firearms. What constitutes a misdemeanor domestic abuse charge varies by state — one of many problematic loopholes that endanger women (discussed at length here) – but generally, any misdemeanor charge in this category bars possession of a firearm.

The Voisine case challenges this, stating that, if the actions that led to a charge were categorized as “reckless,” rather than intentional, the convicted should be exempt from the gun restriction. Richard Voisine was twice charged with misdemeanor assault for slapping a girlfriend while intoxicated. In 2009, Voisine was arrested for shooting an eagle (which is illegal). He was not only in legal trouble over the eagle, but the fact that he was in possession of a gun.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that, whether the assault was considered “reckless” or falls into some other category, a misdemeanor domestic assault charge bars a person from possessing a firearm. In their decision, they wrote: “Reckless conduct, which requires the conscious disregard of a known risk, is not an accident: It involves a deliberate decision to endanger another.”

The case is significant because of the unique nature of domestic assault, which tends to escalate. An abuser who is willing to cross the physical boundary is prone to keep doing so, and in increasingly dangerous ways. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported that, compared to homes without guns, women in homes with guns are 20 times more likely to be murdered by a partner if there is a history of domestic abuse.

Put in the broader context of gun legislation in the U.S., Voisine is an important but small victory. Congress has repeatedly failed to pass sensible legislation. Since people can purchase guns without background checks, for example, people with domestic abuse misdemeanors can still access them even after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

For their part, a majority of the Supreme Court Justices came to bat for women’s rights and safety at the end of June and avoided the potential gridlock of a tied ruling, which would have diverted the rulings back to the lower courts’ decisions before the cases went to the Supreme Court.