Trump-appointed justice could signal major Supreme Court shift on abortion

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With President Donald Trump poised to nominate a U.S. Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy created by the death of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a new 6-3 conservative majority could be emboldened to roll back abortion rights.

The ultimate objective for U.S. conservative activists for decades has been to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. But short of that, there are other options the court has in curtailing abortion rights.

Republican-led states including Ohio, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas and Alabama have passed a variety of abortion restrictions in recent years. Some that seek to ban abortion at an early stage of pregnancy are still being litigated in lower courts and could reach the justices relatively soon.

Abortion is one the most divisive issues in the United States. Conservative opposition to it has been a driving force behind Republicans, including Trump, making a high priority of judicial appointments in recent years.

“Roe v. Wade is on the line in a way it never has been before,” said Julie Rikelman, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights, which regularly challenges abortion restrictions.

Even if Roe is not overturned, “we could be in a situation where the court is upholding even more restrictions on abortion,” Rikelman added.

Trump has said he intends to announce his nomination on Saturday, with conservative appeals court judges Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa considered the frontrunners to be named to succeed Ginsburg, who was a strong defender of abortion rights. Ginsburg died on Friday at age 87.

The leadership of the Republican-controlled Senate is poised to move forward with the nomination even as Trump seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

Even though the court had a 5-4 conservative majority before Ginsburg’s death, some activists on the right were concerned about Chief Justice John Robert’s incremental approach. Roberts angered conservatives by siding with the court’s liberals in June when the court ruled 5-4 to strike down a Louisiana abortion restriction involving a requirement imposed on doctors who perform the procedure.

Roberts, who wrote a separate opinion explaining his views, signaled he may back other abortion restrictions in future cases but said he felt compelled to strike down Louisiana’s law because the justices just four years earlier had invalidated a similar law in Texas.

Trump vowed during the 2016 presidential campaign to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. He already has appointed conservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the court. Both voted to uphold the Louisiana law.

Anti-abortion groups are pushing for Trump to pick Barrett, a conservative Roman Catholic who he appointed to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. Although she has not yet ruled directly on abortion as a judge, Barrett has twice signaled opposition to rulings that struck down abortion-related restrictions.

Abortion rights activists have voiced concern that Barrett would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

STATE-BY-STATE EFFORTS

Broadly speaking, Republican-controlled states have enacted two types of abortion laws: measures that would impose burdensome regulations on abortion providers and those that would ban abortions during the early stages of pregnancy.

The latter laws in particular directly challenge Roe v. Wade and a subsequent 1992 ruling that upheld it. Those two rulings made clear that women have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion at least up until the point when the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks or soon after.

Legal challenges to laws recently enacted in conservative states that directly challenge the Roe precedent by banning abortion outright or in early stages of pregnancy are still being litigated in lower courts.

One appeal pending at the Supreme Court that the justices will discuss whether to hear in the coming months is Mississippi’s bid to revive a law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In a separate case the court could act upon at any time, the Trump administration has asked the justices to put on hold a federal judge’s decision to block during the coronavirus pandemic a U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule requiring women to visit a hospital or clinic to obtain a drug used for medication-induced abortions.

Clarke Forsythe, a lawyer with the Americans United for Life anti-abortion group that has urged Barrett’s appointment, said he expects the Supreme Court to “continue with an incremental approach” even if Trump’s nominee is confirmed, in part because of Roberts’ opinion in the Louisiana case.

But Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which backs abortion rights, said that with only four votes among the justices needed to take up a case, a newly emboldened conservative wing could force Roberts’ hand and take up a more direct challenge to Roe.

“Now,” Dalven said, “Chief Justice Roberts and his concern for the integrity for the court and his potential for being an incrementalist is not enough.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)

U.S. rejects U.N. rights panel upholding access to abortions during pandemic

An exam room at the Planned Parenthood South Austin Health Center is shown in Austin, Texas, U.S. June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Ilana Panich-Linsman

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday hit back at a U.N. women’s rights panel that said some U.S. states limited access to abortions during the COVID-19 pandemic, rejecting its interference and the notion of “an assumed right to abortion”.

“The United States is disappointed by and categorically rejects this transparent attempt to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to assert the existence of such a right,” the U.S. mission in Geneva said in a release posted on Twitter.

“This is a perversion of the human rights system and the founding principles of the United Nations,” it said, citing an Aug. 11 letter it sent to the U.N. experts responding to the “spurious allegations”.

The U.N. working group on discrimination against women and girls said on May 27 that some U.S. states “appear to be “manipulating the COVID-19 crisis to curb access to essential abortion care”.

The panel of five independent U.N. experts said that states including Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee had issued COVID-19 emergency orders suspending procedures not deemed immediately medically necessary to restrict access to abortion.

“This situation is also the latest example illustrating a pattern of restrictions and retrogressions in access to legal abortion care across the country,” Elizabeth Broderick, panel vice-chair, said at the time.

The U.S. statement cited allegations of forced abortions and sterilizations in China’s western region of Xinjiang and urged the panel to focus on “actual human rights abuses”.

A lack of comment on such issues was “one of the reasons that the United States and others increasingly see the U.N.’s human rights system as utterly broken”.

U.S. President Donald Trump, seeking re-election in November, works closely with evangelical Christians and puts their causes of restricting abortion and preserving gun ownership at the top of his policy agenda.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. Supreme Court tosses rulings blocking Indiana abortion curbs

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday gave Indiana a second chance to revive two restrictive abortion laws – one imposing an ultrasound requirement and the other expanding parental notification when minors seek abortions – by throwing out a lower court’s rulings blocking them.

The justices directed the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider both cases in light of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on Monday invalidating a Louisiana law that imposed restrictions on doctors who perform abortions.

Indiana will now get another shot at arguing for the legality of its two Republican-backed laws that the 7th Circuit had prevented from going into effect.

The ultrasound measure would require women to undergo an ultrasound procedure at least 18 hours before terminating a pregnancy. The second law would require that parents be notified when a girl under 18 is seeking an abortion even in situations in which she has asked a court to provide consent instead of her parents, as was allowed under existing law.

The ultrasound measure was passed by the state legislature in 2016 and signed by Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor before Donald Trump selected him as his running mate.

Abortion rights proponents have said that for most women seeking an abortion, an ultrasound is not medically necessary, and that the requirement is an attempt by anti-abortion politicians to make obtaining an abortion more difficult.

Republicans at the state level have pursued a variety of abortion restrictions.

In a third Indiana case on Thursday, the court left in place a ruling in favor of an abortion clinic seeking a license to open a clinic in South Bend. The state appealed when the 7th Circuit ruled in 2019 that abortion provider Whole Woman’s Health could get a provisional license while the litigation over the matter continued.

The Supreme Court on Thursday in two other abortion-related cases left in place policies in Chicago and Pennsylvania’s capital Harrisburg that place limits on anti-abortion activists gathered outside clinics.

The Chicago policy bars activists from coming within eight feet (2.4 meters) of someone within 50 feet (15 meters) of any healthcare facility without their consent if they intend to protest, offer counseling or hand out leaflets. The Harrisburg measure bars people from congregating or demonstrating within 20 feet (6 meters) of a healthcare facility’s entrance or exit.

In Monday’s ruling on Louisiana’s law, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the four liberal justices in the majority on the basis that the law was almost identical to a measure from Texas that the court struck down in 2016.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Louisiana abortion clinic restrictions

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday defended abortion rights by striking down a Louisiana law placing restrictions on doctors who perform the procedure, dealing a blow to anti-abortion advocates.

The 5-4 ruling, with conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four liberals justices in the majority, represented a major victory for Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women in its challenge to the 2014 law. The measure had required doctors who perform abortions to have a sometimes difficult-to-obtain formal affiliation called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic.

Anti-abortion advocates had hoped that the Supreme Court, with its 5-4 conservative majority, would be willing to permit abortion restrictions like those being pursued by Louisiana and other conservative states.

The decision, authored by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, marked the second time in four years that the court ruled against an “admitting privileges” requirement.

In 2016, the court struck down a Republican-backed Texas law that mandated admitting privileges and required clinics to have costly hospital-grade facilities, finding that the restrictions represented an impermissible “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

Several other cases involving legal challenges to abortion restrictions in other states are heading toward the justices that could provide other avenues for its conservative majority to roll back access to the procedure.

Two of Louisiana’s three clinics that perform abortions would have been forced to close if the law went into effect, according to lawyers for Hope Medical Group.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. appeals court blocks Texas curbs on medication abortion

By Lawrence Hurley

(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Monday blocked Texas from enforcing curbs on medication-induced abortions as part of the Republican-governed state’s restrictions aimed at postponing medical procedures not deemed urgent during the coronavirus pandemic.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a federal judge’s decision blocking the state from applying restrictions to abortions induced through medication to go into effect.

In an unsigned opinion, the three-judge panel said it was not clear if the state’s emergency order restricting abortion procedures covered medication-induced abortion.

Texas is one of several conservative states that have tried to impose limits on abortion during the pandemic, saying they are seeking to ensure that medical resources are available to help healthcare facilities cope with people with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

Abortion rights advocates have accused the states of political opportunism, exploiting the pandemic to advance anti-abortion policies.

The abortion providers challenging the Texas restrictions said medication abortion, which involves taking two pills by mouth, should not be halted because it is not a procedure at all and does not require the use of protective equipment.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

U.S. appeals court allows abortion curbs in Texas during coronavirus outbreak

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday ruled that Texas can enforce limits on the ability of women to obtain abortions as part of the state’s policy requiring postponement of non-urgent medical procedures during the coronavirus pandemic.

A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a 2-1 vote threw out a federal judge’s order issued last week that had blocked the state’s action. The appeals court had earlier temporarily put the district judge’s ruling on hold.

The appeals court action allows state officials to continue to enforce the restrictions that were part of an emergency order issued by the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott. The state says abortion providers are covered under a provision requiring postponement of non-urgent medical procedures as healthcare providers focus on battling COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Abortion providers that challenge the state’s order could now turn to the Supreme Court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority.

“This is not the last word. We will take every legal action necessary to fight this abuse of emergency powers,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights group representing clinics in the case.

Texas and other states that previously pursued abortion restrictions have sought to crack down on their availability during the pandemic, prompting a series of court battles. On Monday, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to block a similar district court ruling that prevented the state of Ohio from banning abortion procedures.

Writing for the majority, Judge Kyle Duncan faulted Austin-based District Court Judge Lee Yeakel on several counts, saying he had “usurped the state’s authority to craft emergency health measures.”

Duncan, who was appointed to the bench by Republican President Donald Trump, concluded that the state must prevail “given the extraordinary nature of these errors, the escalating spread of COVID-19 and the state’s critical interest in protecting the public health.”

Yeakel had ruled that Paxton’s action “prevents Texas women from exercising what the Supreme Court has declared is their fundamental constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable.”

Abortion providers including Whole Woman’s Health and Planned Parenthood sued to block the Texas policy after clinics said they were forced to cancel hundreds of appointments for abortions across the state. They note that abortions are time-sensitive, with Texas banning abortions 20 weeks after fertilization.

The restrictions violate the right to abortion under the U.S. Constitution as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the abortion providers argued.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley. Additional reporting by Nate Raymond.; Editing by Chris Reese and Bill Berkrot)

Trump ‘gag rule’ on abortion referral can be enforced, U.S. appeals court rules

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – A sharply divided federal appeals court on Monday said the Trump administration may enforce a rule labeled by critics as a “gag rule” that could deprive abortion providers of federal funding for family planning.

In a 7-4 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling last June by a unanimous three-judge panel to lift injunctions won by California, Oregon and Washington against the rule, which deprives clinics that provide abortion referrals of Title X family planning funds.

The rule was meant to help President Donald Trump fulfill a 2016 campaign pledge to end federal support for Planned Parenthood, which received about $60 million annually, or one-fifth, of Title X funds.

Planned Parenthood left the program last August rather than comply with the rule, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In a statement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the “troubling” decision helps Trump “roll back women’s access to reproductive healthcare.”

Planned Parenthood’s acting president Alexis McGill Johnson called on Congress to overturn the rule, which she said created “egregious barriers” to healthcare for low-income people.

A U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman said the decision properly upholds HHS’ prohibition on using taxpayer money to “subsidize abortion” through Title X.

Writing for Monday’s majority, Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta said HHS was owed “broad deference” and acted reasonably, not arbitrarily or capriciously, in adopting a “less restrictive” rule than the one blessed by the Supreme Court in 1988.

“There is no ‘gag’ on abortion counseling,” Ikuta wrote, saying the rule allows healthcare providers to discuss, though not to encourage, abortion.

The appeals court returned the cases to federal district courts for further proceedings. A federal judge in Baltimore on Feb. 14 blocked the rule’s enforcement in Maryland.

Circuit Judge Richard Paez dissented, saying the rule would deprive people of cancer screening, HIV testing and other needed healthcare, and undermine Congress’ intent that patients be able to communicate openly with healthcare providers.

“The consequences will be borne by the millions of women who turn to Title X-funded clinics for lifesaving care and the very contraceptive services that have caused rates of unintended pregnancy – and abortion – to plummet,” he wrote. “I strongly dissent.”

All seven judges in the majority were appointed by Republican presidents, including two by Trump. The dissenters were appointed by Democratic presidents.

The cases in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals include California v Azar et al, No. 19-15974; Oregon et al v Azar et al, No. 19-35386; and Washington et al v Azar et al, No. 19-35394.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Sonya Hepinstall)

Breaking precedent, Trump to attend Washington anti-abortion march

(Reuters) – Donald Trump will become the first U.S. president to attend the annual “March for Life” to be held in Washington on Friday, organizers said, underscoring his outspoken support for the anti-abortion movement as it celebrates key legislative gains.

Thousands of protesters from around the country were expected to converge in the nation’s capital for the event, which began in 1973 after the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Roe v. Wade decision, established a woman’s constitutional right to get an abortion.

“See you on Friday … Big Crowd!” Trump posted on Twitter on Tuesday in response to a tweet from March for Life promoting the event.

With the 2020 presidential campaign season heating up, abortion remains one of the most divisive issues in the United States. Opponents cite religious beliefs to declare it immoral, while abortion-rights activists say the procedure is protected by a constitutional guarantee that gives women control over their bodies and futures.

About 58% of American adults say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last year.

Even so, anti-abortion advocates made significant legislative strides in 2019. Twenty-five bans on various types of abortions were signed into law, according to the Guttmacher Institute, although many have not taken effect because of pending legal challenges.

Conservative lawmakers have said some of the bans were passed with the knowledge that they likely would be struck down in court but with the hope that those rulings might prompt the Supreme Court to review its Roe v. Wade decision.

In Roe v. Wade, the court found that certain state laws outlawing abortion were an unconstitutional violation of a woman’s right to privacy, effectively legalizing abortion nationwide.

Even though he had declared support for abortion rights years earlier, Trump vowed during his 2016 campaign to appoint Supreme Court justices he believed would overturn Roe. Since his election, he has appointed two justices to the court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, cementing the court’s 5-4 conservative majority.

“You’ve heard a lot of religious leaders and a lot of Republicans say that this president is the biggest champion for life … the biggest advocate for the pro-life movement in history,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters on Thursday.

March For Life President Jeanne Mancini said the organization “was deeply honored” to welcome Trump in person, after he delivered televised remarks in support of the anti-abortion movement at the 2019 march. Vice President Mike Pence attended the event in person last year.

Past U.S. presidents have opted to stay from the march. Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both delivered remarks remotely.

In June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case that could drastically limit doctors’ ability to provide abortions in Louisiana, a Republican stronghold state. The case will test the willingness of the court to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)

Trump wants to end requiring U.S. religious welfare groups to tell clients of options

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Religious social service providers receiving funds from the U.S. government would no longer have to tell their clients about other, possibly secular organizations that offer similar help under changes the Trump administration proposed on Thursday.

Conservative Christians, a key bloc in President Donald Trump’s Republican Party, have pushed to lift the requirement that religiously affiliated service groups must tell clients about alternative providers if they receive federal money. They also must post information on referrals and track the referrals they make.

The requirement has been a flashpoint in the national fight over abortion.

Supporters say it ensures women understand the availability of safe and legal abortions in their areas. Some Christian-affiliated pregnancy centers opposed to abortion say that supplying information about abortion providers compromises their beliefs.

The Trump administration argues that the requirement puts an undue burden on groups linked to churches and treats them unfairly, presuming that because of their religious affiliation they will provide ideologically driven care or lie to clients. It says there is no similar requirement for secular organizations.

To end the requirement, the administration is pursuing rule changes at nine government agencies that carry out policy on health, labor, education, food, housing, justice, homeland security, veterans and international aid.

With national headlines on Thursday focused on Trump’s impeachment trial, the White House dedicated the day to actions it said would protect religious freedom, capped by an afternoon event on prayer in public schools.

But unraveling the alternative provider requirement is likely to receive the most attention.

It is also sure to anger advocates for patients’, women’s, and civil rights.

They say that individuals should be able to receive treatment from government-funded groups aligned with their personal beliefs or that do not have a religious affiliation.

They also say people should have clear and accurate information about all the taxpayer-backed options for assistance in their area, and that the government needs to ensure that in providing money to nonprofits it is not funding Christian proselytizing.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Jonathan Oatis)