The 2019-2020 term of the US Supreme Court was remarkable by any standard. An extraordinary number of important cases made it “a buffet of blockbusters.”1
We look first at several cases that will be of particular interest to ObGyns. Then we look briefly at a number of other important cases that affect the medical profession as a whole and the direction of the country (see “Other significant US Supreme Court decisions”), and finally we conclude with an analysis of this term and a forecast for the next.
We chose cases in which specialty organizations, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), or organized medicine (the American Medical Association [AMA], the Association of American Medical Colleges [AAMC], or the American Hospital Association [AHA]), took a special interest by filing “amicus curiae” (friend of the court) briefs with the Supreme Court. These briefs are filed by an organization or person who is not a party to the case but who may have important information to convey to the Court. Because these briefs represent a significant commitment of money, time, and effort, they are usually not undertaken lightly.
Decisions concerning abortion
June v Russo
Decided June 29, 2020, June v Russo involved a Louisiana statute that required abortion providers have “active admitting privileges at a hospital” within 30 miles of where the abortion is performed.2 The Court decided a case in 2016 (from Texas) that involved almost the same statutory provision, so it might seem like an easy ruling.3 But Justice Kennedy (the deciding vote in 2016) has been replaced by Justice Gorsuch, so the outcome was uncertain. It was a difficult case, with a total of 5 opinions covering 138 pages and a “surprise” from the Chief Justice.
The Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down the Louisiana law, but there was no majority opinion. Four justices in the plurality emphasized that the Louisiana law (like the Texas law) substantially burdened the right to abortion without any corresponding benefit to the health of the women seeking abortions. (Under earlier Court precedents, “undue burdens” on abortion are unconstitutional.4) Justice Breyer noted that the state could not present even one example in which a woman would have had better treatment if her doctor had admitting privileges. For a variety of reasons, admitting privileges were cumbersome for abortion providers to obtain; therefore, enforcing the law had little or no benefit, but significant risk of reduced availability of abortion services.
In June v Russo, Chief Justice Roberts literally became the “swing vote”—the fifth vote to strike down the Louisiana law. In 2016, he had voted the other way—to uphold essentially the same law (in Texas) that he struck down here. He attributed his switch to precedent (the general obligation of courts to follow prior decisions). He disagreed with the earlier decision, but felt bound by it.
This should be the end of the abortion provider “hospital privileges requirements” that a number of states have passed. States seeking to nibble away at abortion rights will undoubtedly look elsewhere. Beyond that, it is difficult, from this case, to discern the future of abortion rights.
ACOG was the lead in amicus briefs urging the Court to strike down the Louisiana law. ACOG (with others) was one of only a handful of organizations filing a brief urging the Court to agree to hear the case.5 When the Court did agree to hear the case (“granted certiorari”), ACOG and a number of other medical organizations filed a formal amicus brief on the merits of the case.6 The brief made 2 arguments: First, that this case was essentially decided in Whole Woman’s Health in 2016 (the Texas case) and, second, that “an admitting privileges requirement is not medically necessary” and “clinicians who provide abortions are unable to obtain admitting privileges for reasons unrelated to their ability to safely and competently perform abortions.” Justice Breyer cited the ACOG brief twice.
The American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists also filed an amicus brief.7 The brief was directed solely at arguing that ACOG was not presenting reliable science. It summarized, “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has always presented itself to the Court as a source of objective medical knowledge. However, when it comes to abortion, the College today is primarily a pro-abortion political advocacy organization.” That brief concluded that the “Court should read ACOG’s amicus brief not as an authoritative recitation of settled science, but as a partisan advocacy paper on behalf of a mere subset of American obstetricians and gynecologists.”
The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (which should not be confused with the “National Board of Physicians and Surgeons”) also filed an amicus brief. The brief argued, “Abortion, like other outpatient surgical procedures, sometimes results in patient hospitalization. Requiring abortion providers to maintain admitting privileges will improve communication between physicians in the transfer of patients to the hospital and allow them to participate in the care of their patients while in the hospital, in line with their ethical duty to ensure their patients’ continuity of care.”8
Continue to: Ultrasonography requirement for abortion...