In U.S. Supreme Court case, the past could be the future on abortion

By Lawrence Hurley

OXFORD, Miss. (Reuters) – Just months before she was set to start law school in the summer of 1973, Barbara Phillips was shocked to learn she was pregnant.

Then 24, she wanted an abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court had legalized abortion nationwide months earlier with its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling recognizing a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. But abortions were not legally available at the time in Mississippi, where she lived in the small town of Port Gibson.

Phillips, a Black woman enmeshed in the civil rights movement, could feel her dream of becoming a lawyer slipping away.

“It was devastating. I was desperate,” Phillips said, sitting on the patio of her cozy one-story house in Oxford, a college town about 160 miles (260 km) north of Jackson, Mississippi’s capital.

At the time of the Roe ruling, 46 of the 50 U.S. states had some sort of criminal prohibitions on abortion. Access often was limited to wealthy and well-connected women, who tended to be white.

With a feminist group’s help, Phillips located a doctor in New York willing to provide an abortion. New York before Roe was the only state that let out-of-state women obtain abortions. She flew there for the procedure.

Now 72, Phillips does not regret her abortion. She went on to attend Northwestern law school in Chicago and realize her goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer, with a long career. Years later, she had a son when she felt the time was right.

“I was determined to decide for myself what I wanted to do with my life and my body,” Phillips said.

U.S. abortion rights are under attack unlike any time since the Roe ruling, with Republican-backed restrictions being passed in numerous states. The Supreme Court on Dec. 1 is set to hear arguments in a case in which Mississippi is seeking to revive its law, blocked by lower courts, banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi has raised the stakes by explicitly asking the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Such a ruling could turn back the clock in Mississippi, which currently has just one abortion clinic, and other states to the kind of environment on abortion access that Phillips experienced nearly a half century ago.

Large swathes of America could return to an era in which women who want to end a pregnancy face the choice of undergoing a potentially dangerous illegal abortion, traveling long distances to a state where the procedure remains legal and available or buying abortion pills online.

Mississippi’s abortion law is not the only one being tested at the Supreme Court. The justices on Nov. 1 heard arguments in challenges to a Texas law banning abortion at about six weeks of pregnancy, but have not yet ruled.

TRIGGER LAWS

Mississippi is one of a dozen states with so-called trigger laws that would immediately ban abortion in all or most cases if Roe is overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

Many are in the South, so a Mississippi woman would be unable to obtain an abortion in neighboring Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee or Alabama. The nearest states where abortion would remain legal, at least in the short term, would be Illinois and Florida.

The average distance a Mississippi woman would need to drive to reach a clinic would increase from 78 miles to 380 miles (125 to 610 km) each way, according to Guttmacher.

While some abortion rights advocates fear a return to grisly illegal back-alley abortions, there has been an important development since the pre-Roe era: abortion pills. Mississippi is among 19 states imposing restrictions on medication-induced abortions.

Mississippi officials are cagey on what a post-Roe world might look like. Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who asked the court to overturn Roe, declined an interview request, as did Republican Governor Tate Reeves.

Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson, who as a Republican state legislator helped shepherd the 2018 passage of the 15-week ban, called Roe v. Wade “antiquated, old law based on antiquated and old science.”

Gipson in an interview declined to answer questions about what Mississippi – or the southeastern United States – would be like without abortion rights, focusing on the specifics of the 15-week ban.

“It’s a false narrative to paint this as a picture of an outright ban throughout the southeast,” Gipson said, noting that the Supreme Court does not have to formally overturn Roe to uphold Mississippi’s law.

In court papers, Fitch said scientific advances, including contested claims that a fetus can detect pain early in a pregnancy, emphasize how Roe and a subsequent 1992 decision that reaffirmed abortion rights are “decades out of date.”

Abortion rights advocates have said any ruling upholding Mississippi’s law would effectively gut Roe, giving states unfettered power to limit or ban the procedure.

Phillips worries about a revival of dangerous, unregulated abortions that imperil women’s lives.

“I’m afraid that many more women and girls will be in back alleys,” Phillips said. “I’m worried we are going to find them in country roads, dead.”

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

Mississippi set to carry out state’s first execution since 2012

(Reuters) – Mississippi is scheduled to carry out its first execution in nine years on Wednesday when it puts to death a man convicted of killing his estranged wife and sexually assaulting his stepdaughter during a standoff with police in 2010.

David Cox, 50, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. local time at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman for the death of his wife Kim Cox.

Cox would be the first inmate executed in Mississippi since 2012 and the ninth executed in the United States in 2021. Mississippi is among the U.S. states that have had recent difficulties in buying lethal-injection drugs from pharmaceutical companies unwilling to supply them for executions.

Cox had petitioned the Mississippi Supreme Court for all attorneys to be removed from the case and all appeals on his behalf to be halted. In 2018, Cox wrote a letter to the court’s chief justice, saying that he was “a guilty man worthy of death.”

On May 14, 2010, Cox bought a gun and went to his sister-in-law’s Sherman, Mississippi, home where his estranged wife, their two children and his stepdaughter lived. Cox shot his way into the home and took his wife and two of the children hostage for more than eight hours, prosecutors said.

During the standoff with police, Cox shot his wife in the stomach and arm. As she lay dying for several hours, he sexually assaulted his stepdaughter three times in front of her. He also refused medical treatment for his wife, forcing her to beg for her life to hostage negotiators, court documents showed.

Police entered the home early the next morning and arrested Cox. A jury sentenced him to die in 2012 after he pleaded guilty to all eight charges he faced, including capital murder.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

New York City police union files lawsuit to block vaccine mandate

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – New York City’s police union filed a lawsuit on Monday against a vaccine mandate for municipal workers ordered last week by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The mayor on Wednesday ordered all city employees to show proof of inoculation against COVID-19 or be placed on unpaid leave, drawing the union’s ire.

The Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York said on Twitter that it had filed a suit in the state Supreme Court. It asked the court for a temporary restraining order to halt the mandate while the suit remains pending.

The union added on Twitter that there was “still no written, NYPD-specific policy guidance on how the mandate will be implemented.”

The mayor set a deadline of 5 p.m. this coming Friday for employees to show proof of inoculation to a supervisor. Over 70% of all 160,000 New York City workers, including a similar percentage in the police department, have already received at least one dose, the mayor said.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association representing the city’s 50,000 active and retired officers, said they should have the opportunity to choose whether to get the vaccine.

De Blasio cited overtime and redeployments as contingency plans should a large contingent of those officers and other unvaccinated city workers refuse to comply with the mandate.

Municipalities, school districts and other jurisdictions throughout the country are grappling with masking and vaccination requirements. The number of new COVID-19 cases has steadily declined in the United States since a surge caused by the Delta variant of the virus during the summer.

De Blasio had said employees will no longer have the option to be regularly tested instead of getting the vaccine, but added the city will still grant medical and religious exemptions.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Howard Goller)

Abortion providers ask U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in challenge to Texas law

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -Abortion providers in Texas on Thursday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene on an urgent basis in their challenge to a state law imposing a near-total ban on abortion.

The providers asked the justices to hear their case before lower courts have finished ruling on the dispute because of the “great harm the ban is causing.” The Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, this month refused to block the law, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

The Texas law is unusual in that it gives private citizens the power to enforce it by enabling them to sue anyone who assists a woman in getting an abortion past the six-week cutoff. That feature has helped shield the law from being immediately blocked as it made it more difficult to directly sue the government.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, the abortion providers including Whole Woman’s Health and other advocacy groups said that the justices should decide if the state can “insulate” its law from federal court review by delegating its enforcement to the general public.

The Supreme Court rarely agrees to hear a case before lower courts have had a chance to weigh in with their own rulings. But in the court’s 5-4 decision on Sept. 1 to let the law stand for now, the dissenting justices, including conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, expressed skepticism about how the law is enforced.

Roberts said he would have blocked the law’s enforcement at that point “so that the courts may consider whether a state can avoid responsibility for its laws in such a manner.”

The providers said that the ban has eliminated the vast majority of abortions in the state given the threat of “ruinous liability,” causing Texans to have to travel hundreds of miles (km) to other states, causing backlogs there.

“Texans are in crisis,” they said in a legal filing.

Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration on Sept 9 sued Texas, seeking to block enforcement of the Republican-backed law, as his fellow Democrats fear the right to abortion established in 1973 may be at risk.

The Texas law is the latest Republican-backed measure passed at the state level restricting abortion.

The measure prohibits abortion at a point when many women do not even realize they are pregnant. Under the law, individual citizens can be awarded a minimum of $10,000 for bringing successful lawsuits against those who perform or help others obtain an abortion that violates the ban.

The providers said that they have been forced to comply with the law because defending against these lawsuits, even if they prevail, would amount to “costly, and potentially bankrupting, harassment.”

The Supreme Court already is set to consider a major abortion case on Dec. 1 in a dispute centering on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban in which that state has asked the justices to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and ended an era when some states had banned the procedure. A ruling is due by the end of June 2022.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editig by Will Dunham)

Mexican Supreme Court decriminalizes abortion in historic shift

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Tuesday that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional, a major victory for advocates of women’s health and human rights, just as parts of the United States enact tougher laws against the practice.

The court ruling in the majority Roman Catholic nation follows moves to decriminalize abortion at state level, although most of the country still has tough laws in place against women terminating their pregnancy early.

“This is a historic step for the rights of women,” said Supreme Court Justice Luis Maria Aguilar.

A number of U.S. states have recently taken steps to restrict women’s access to abortion, particularly Texas, which last week enacted the strictest anti-abortion law in the country after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.

The Mexican ruling opens the door to the possibility for the release of women incarcerated for having had abortions. It could also lead to U.S. women in states such as Texas deciding to travel south of the border to terminate their pregnancies.

In July, the state of Veracruz became just the fourth of Mexico’s 32 regions to decriminalize abortion.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Biden enlists White House counsel to fight Texas abortion law

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Thursday said he is launching a “whole-of-government effort,” including from the White House counsel, to combat a strict new Texas abortion law after an overnight Supreme Court decision let it stand.

Biden, a Democrat and a Catholic who has shifted to the left on abortion in recent years to be more in line with his party’s base, called the law that bans any abortion after six weeks an “unprecedented assault on a woman’s constitutional rights.”

The president said in a statement he was directing the office of the White House counsel and his Gender Policy Council to review how the government could “ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions… and what legal tools we have to insulate women and providers from the impact of Texas’ bizarre scheme of outsourced enforcement to private parties.”

The White House will specifically look at what measures can be taken through the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice, Biden said.

The White House has called for the “codification” of abortion rights that are currently protected by the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision through legislation in Congress, but has not outlined any specific steps that it is taking to back any such law.

A plurality of Americans believe that abortion should be legal up until the fetus is capable of living on its own, and they remain largely supportive of Roe v. Wade, a Reuters/Ipsos poll in June showed. The responses are split along party lines, with 70% of Democrats, 35% of Republicans and 47% of independents agreeing abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Biden’s Democrats have control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives with slim majorities and he is seeking to push through legislation on infrastructure and other Democratic priorities in the coming weeks.

The House will debate and vote on legislation stopping states from enacting restrictive anti-abortion regulations like the one just approved by Texas, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)

U.S. judge will not block CDC’s new COVID-19 residential eviction ban

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. judge on Friday rejected a bid to block a residential eviction moratorium put in place last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), despite raising questions about the new order’s legality.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich on procedural grounds is a win for the Biden administration. She said the realtor groups must go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to challenge the new 60-day CDC moratorium set to expire on Oct. 3.

Under heavy political pressure, the CDC reversed course on Aug. 3 and issued a slightly narrower eviction moratorium just three days after the prior one expired. The current moratorium covers nearly 92% of U.S. counties, but that could change based on COVID-19 conditions.

More than 15 million people in 6.5 million U.S. households are currently behind on rental payments, according to a study, and collectively owe more than $20 billion to landlords.

Friedrich in May declared the CDC eviction moratorium, which was first issued in September 2020, unlawful but delayed her ruling from immediately taking effect.

In June, a divided Supreme Court agreed to let the CDC moratorium remain in effect after the agency announced it would allow the ban to expire on July 31.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh issued a concurring opinion saying that in his view extending the CDC moratorium past July 31 would need “clear and specific congressional authorization (via new legislation).”

Before that, the appeals court had issued a ruling upholding a decision to put Friedrich’s ruling on hold.

Landlord groups argued Kavanaugh’s ruling meant Friedrich should immediately block the new moratorium.

Friedrich said she would have blocked the eviction order but for the appeals court ruling.

“The court’s hands are tied. The Supreme Court did not issue a controlling opinion in this case, and circuit precedent provides that the votes of dissenting justices may not be combined with that of a concurring justice to create binding law,” she wrote.

The CDC declined to comment on Friday and the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Biden asks Congress to extend COVID-19 eviction ban set to expire this week

By David Shepardson and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden asked Congress on Thursday to extend a moratorium on evictions to protect renters and their families that is set to expire this week amid a deadly rise in coronavirus infections, the White House said.

Biden also asked the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and Veterans Affairs to extend their respective eviction bans through the end of September, the White House said, to protect Americans living in federally insured, single-family properties.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said last month it would not extend the eviction moratorium past July 31. The CDC did not immediately comment on Thursday.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to leave in place the CDC’s ban on residential evictions imposed last year to combat the spread of COVID-19 and prevent homelessness during the pandemic.

“In my view, clear and specific congressional authorization (via new legislation) would be necessary for the CDC to extend the moratorium past July 31,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was one of five justices who voted to leave the moratorium in place.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said “given the recent spread of the Delta variant, including among those Americans both most likely to face evictions and lacking vaccinations, President Biden would have strongly supported a decision by the CDC to further extend this eviction moratorium.”

But she added “unfortunately, the Supreme Court has made clear that this option is no longer available.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Doina Chiacu;Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. Supreme Court leans toward reining in unions in property rights case

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – Supreme Court justices on Monday appeared ready to further curb the power of organized labor in the United States by rolling back a decades-old California regulation that lets union organizers enter agricultural properties without an employer’s consent.

The justices appeared sympathetic during more than an hour of oral arguments toward an appeal by two fruit companies in the most populous U.S. state seeking to halt enforcement of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board regulation, which has been in place since 1975. The justices wrestled over how far they should go in bolstering the property rights of owners.

A lower court rejected the companies’ argument that the regulation violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment prohibition on the government taking private property for public use without just compensation.

Conservative justices, who hold a 6-3 majority on the court, seemed to agree that the regulation went too far. Chief Justice John Roberts asked questions that indicated the rule placed few limits on unions. Justice Clarence Thomas wondered how it would be different if the state commandeered a farm to train its police, even if only intermittently.

Liberal justices raised doubts that any regulation like California’s should always be considered unconstitutional, as the companies have asserted. They also expressed concern over how the case might affect other government authority over health and safety.

California, defending the regulation, said that beyond affecting the ability of unions to organize, the case has the potential to reverberate more widely, casting doubt on food, factory and social work inspections, or even Border Patrol entries onto private property to enforce immigration laws.

The Supreme Court in 2018 dealt a big blow to organized labor by ruling that non-members cannot be forced, as they are in certain states, to pay fees to unions representing public employees such as teachers and police that negotiate contracts covering non-unionized workers as well as union members.

The California regulation allows union organizers, with notice to regulators and the employer, to enter agricultural premises to talk with employees for three non-working hours per day during four 30-day periods each year. The organizers do not require an employer’s consent.

Dorris, California strawberry producer Cedar Point Nursery and Fresno-based Fowler Packing Company, which ships grapes and mandarin oranges, said that the regulation is a relic of the past and that farm workers are easier to reach than ever, including through smartphones and radio stations.

Unions have said the rule in practice affords them little time to reach workers during the narrow window of seasonal farm work either before or after work. They have said farm workers often are migrants who change job sites frequently and may not understand English or Spanish, making work site access one of the only ways to inform them of their labor rights.

The businesses said almost all of their 3,000 workers can communicate in English and Spanish.

The companies challenged the regulation after disputes with the United Farm Workers union in 2015. Organizers disrupted work on Cedar’s property with bullhorns, while Fowler was accused of denying organizers access, drawing a complaint with regulators, according to the lawsuit.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the case in 2019.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration had backed the companies in the case, but Democratic President Joe Biden last month informed the justices that the government had switched sides, asserting that the regulation is lawful.

The companies are represented in the case by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court to weigh Trump administration abortion referral restriction

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide the legality of a government regulation implemented under former President Donald Trump that bars health clinics from receiving federal family planning funds if they provide abortion referrals.

The justices will hear appeals in cases in which 21 states including Oregon, California and New York, the city of Baltimore and organizations including the American Medical Association and Planned Parenthood challenged the 2019 regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

President Joe Biden, who took office on Jan. 20, said during the election campaign that he would reverse course from the Trump administration rule. Such a reversal would require a new regulation to be issued after the customary federal rule-making process.

Critics have dubbed the Trump regulation a “gag rule” because they maintain that it prevents medical professionals from providing counseling about abortion if a clinic receives family planning funds through Title X of the 1970 Public Health Services Act. The rule also requires physical separation at any facilities that receive the federal funding and also provide abortions.

The Trump administration said the rule does not prevent all information on abortion being given to patients but enforces a provision in the 1970 law that prohibited funds being used “in programs where abortion is a method family planning.”

Prior to the 2019 rule, healthcare providers could receive Title X funds if they gave abortion referrals as long as the money was used solely for other family planning purposes.

The rule was meant to help 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, which provides reproductive health services including abortions, left the program in 2019 rather than comply with the rule.

In February 2020, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rule in the challenge brought by states and medical groups. In a separate September 2020 ruling in the lawsuit brought by Baltimore, the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the rule to be unlawful.

Currently, the rule is in effect except for in Maryland, where a federal judge blocked it in the Baltimore case.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)