Summer Supreme Court Cases

Molly Mendoza, Stanback Digital Fundraising and Communications Fellow

Over the last month, the Supreme Court handed down several long-anticipated decisions, many of which had been delayed due to COVID-19. Some of the most newsworthy rulings concerned access to Donald Trump’s financial records and protection of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act. Three of the cases justices heard were directly related to reproductive health and rights—below is a quick guide to help understand the issue considered in each case, the decision, and the impact.


June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Russo

June 29, 2020

What is the case about?

A Louisiana law required doctors that perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. June Medical Services challenged that this would place an undue burden on patients seeking abortion services.

What did the Supreme Court decide?

The court ruled, 5-4, that the Louisiana law violated the Constitution as it placed an undue burden on the Constitutional right to abortion.

This law, were it allowed to stand, would have left just one doctor still able to provide abortion services for all of Louisiana. As is typically the case when it comes to TRAP laws, the Louisiana law would have disproportionately affected low-income people (many of whom are people of color) who may not be able to take time off work to travel or to even be able to afford transportation to a more distant clinic.

What does this mean for reproductive health?

This case is a significant win for abortion rights in the United States, especially since this was the first case on abortion access since Trump’s two Supreme Court nominees resulted in a conservative majority on the bench.

Chief Justice Roberts cast the swing vote, basing his decision on precedent. Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, decided in 2016, concerned a nearly identical law in Texas, which the court struck down. At that time, Chief Justice Roberts was part of the dissent. He maintains today that the Texas case was wrongly decided, and that he only voted to strike down the Louisiana law in keeping with the earlier decision. This is worrisome because it leaves open the possibility that he will vote to uphold other laws that restrict abortion access, as long as they do so in a different way.


United States Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc.

June 29, 2020

What is the case about?

The United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003 prohibited HIV/AIDS funding to domestic and international nongovernmental organizations that don’t have explicit policies opposing prostitution and sex trafficking. This was found in a 2013 Supreme Court case to be an unconstitutional restraint on free speech when applied to American organizations. The question in this case was whether that unconstitutionality extended to American organizations’ foreign affiliates.

What did the Supreme Court decide?

In a 5-3 vote, the Court held that the First Amendment right to free speech does not extend to foreign affiliates of American organizations.

What does this mean for reproductive health?

This decision means that foreign affiliates must issue statements that condemns sex work and sex trafficking or be ineligible for HIV/AIDS funding from the United States. If organizations comply in order to receive funding, they run the risk of alienating already vulnerable sex workers, who might feel unwelcome or unsafe accessing healthcare from organizations that vocally oppose their means of earning income.

The policy impinges on organizations’ free speech and restricts health care access to the people most vulnerable to HIV infection for the sake of imposing conservative ideology about sexual and reproductive health overseas.


Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania

July 8, 2020

What is the case about?

The Trump administration expanded exemptions for employers, based on religious and moral grounds, from the requirement to provide contraceptive coverage outlined in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010. Pennsylvania sued.

What did the Supreme Court decide?

The court ruled, 7-2, that the expanded exemptions are lawful, and that employers that object to contraception on religious or moral grounds are exempted from providing coverage.

What does this mean for reproductive health?

This is a direct attack on reproductive health and rights, and again the repercussions will be felt most harshly among low-income people. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated in her dissent that “between 70,500 and 126,400 women would immediately lose access to no-cost contraceptive services.”

This decision is especially frustrating as the ACA already included a filing process that religiously-affiliated nonprofits, schools, or hospitals could use to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage. This broader exemption means many more Americans will lose access to contraceptives. This overreach would be shameful enough if it was just about birth control, but contraception has so many other medical uses—such as treatment for hormone imbalances, menstrual cycles, acne, and endometriosis.

A policy that allows the denial of contraceptive coverage for patients is one that denies them access to basic health care.

These Supreme Court case decisions set an uncertain path for the future of reproductive rights and health—for every step forward, it seems we take two back. The decisions this summer also serve as a reminder of how important it is for all of us to vote—whoever wins the 2020 presidential election will almost certainly have the chance to nominate one or more Supreme Court justices. And the makeup of the Senate will determine whether those nominations are appointed to the bench for life. Sign our voter pledge here!

Categories: Blog
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