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The Supreme Court jumped back into the abortion debate in dramatic fashion Wednesday, taking on an election-year dispute that could have long-term consequences for one of the most divisive social issues.
The justices heard oral arguments in a challenge to a Louisiana law requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. A federal appeals court had upheld the law, despite an almost identical statute from Texas that was declared unconstitutional by the justices in 2016.
The debate was predictably divided among the nine members, with Chief Justice John Roberts potentially holding the deciding vote.
How the Supreme Court rules in the current dispute could signal whether this bench would be willing to tackle other pending abortion-related restrictions in several states, including those banning the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which could be as early as six weeks.
Hundreds of protesters on both sides of the issue rallied outside the high court, waving signs and blowing horns.
Inside the courtroom, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked, “What sense does it make” to require admitting privileges within 30 miles of a hospital, when she said surgical abortions are among the safest procedures, and medical abortions – where women take prescribed pills, are mostly done at home.
“This law unduly burdens a woman’s right to abortion,” added Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh wondered whether the state law would be an “undue burden” to a woman’s right, if few or any doctors would have problems getting admitting privileges. Roberts suggested other states may have different standards that might be constitutional.
Justice Neil Gorsuch offered no comments or questions from the bench.
The consolidated cases are June Medical Services LLC v. Russo (18-1323) and Russo v. June Medical Services (18-1460). A ruling is due by late June.