Medicolegal Issues

4 Supreme Court decisions important to ObGyns from the 2015−2016 term

Abortion, contraception access top the past year’s decisions most relevant to your practice

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In this Article

  • Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt
  • Fraud and abuse litigation
  • What’s to come



Each year, the decisions of the Supreme Court have a significant impact on ObGyn practice. During the 2015–2016 term, which ended in June, the Court issued important rulings on abortion facilities, Affordable Care Act (ACA) contraception coverage, health care False Claims Act (FCA) liability, and state health care data collection. The American Medical Association (AMA), the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and other organizations that represent health care professionals play an important role in health-related Supreme Court cases. For example, amicus curiae (“friend of the Court”) briefs are filed not by parties to a case but by organizations that have a special insight into or interest in a case. Although the extent to which amicus briefs influence cases is often unclear, organization representatives think their briefs make a difference, and briefs undoubtedly do in some cases.

The 2016 presidential election will determine the Supreme Court make-up for the next term, but in this article we consider recent cases that affect ObGyns’ practice in particular. We start with the cases in which professional organizations filed amicus briefs and then turn to other notable cases.

1. Abortion access in Texas and other states

The most important ObGyn case of the 2015–2016 term was Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt.1

At stake. Texas adopted a statute requiring 1) that physicians who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic and 2) that abortion clinics meet the state’s standards for ambulatory surgical centers. The current law, upheld by the Court some years ago, is that state laws affecting abortion are unconstitutional if they “unduly burden” the right to abortion. By undue burden, the Court meant, “Regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion impose an undue burden on the right.” The question in the Texas case was whether the statute’s 2 requirements were undue.

ACOG, AMA, and other groups filed a brief stating that the Texas law did not promote the welfare of women but instead was unnecessary and not “supported by accepted medical practice or scientific evidence.”2 In another brief the Society of Hospital Medicine and the Society of ObGyn Hospitalists also indicated that having admitting privileges is appropriate only for physicians who regularly admit patients to a hospital.3

A brief filed by the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists and several other organizations argued the other side: “The surgical center and admitting privileges requirements imposed by the Act reflect the professional standard of practice for outpatient gynecological and similar surgery.”4

Final ruling. In a 5−3 decision, the Court struck down the Texas law for providing little or no health benefits while significantly burdening abortion facility access. Many clinics had closed or were in plans to because of the difficulty and expense of complying with the law. This case has national implications. Similar laws, either in place or being considered in other states, will almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional.

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