Civil and Human Rights

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was a constitutional challenge to Texas HB 2 — a package of onerous restrictions designed to shutter abortion clinics across the state — signed into law by Governor Rick Perry in 2013.

Case Summary

HB 2 required that physicians who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic and also demanded that abortion clinics meet the standards for standalone surgical centers, both medically unnecessary requirements driven by the legislature’s desire to make it nearly impossible for abortion clinics to operate in the state. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the Texas law, which would have forced more than 75 percent of the state’s abortion clinics to close, without any meaningful inquiry into whether the laws served any health-related purpose. In the Fifth Circuit’s view, even this draconian impact would not result in an undue burden on a woman’s right to an abortion. In June 2015, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court voted to partially stay the Fifth Circuit’s ruling. Whole Woman’s Health appealed to the Supreme Court, filing a petition for a writ of certiorari on September 5, 2015, which the Court granted on November 13, 2015.

On January 4, 2016, Constitutional Accountability Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Whole Woman’s Health, which argued that the Fifth Circuit’s analysis could not be squared with the text or history of the Fourteenth Amendment, the constitutionally-mandated role of the courts in securing the Constitution’s promise of liberty for all, or the Supreme Court’s precedents. Our brief demonstrated that the text and history of the Fourteenth Amendment protect personal individual rights essential to liberty, dignity and autonomy and require courts to carefully review state legislation impinging on individual liberty.

As we discussed, history shows that the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment wrote that Amendment to provide broad protections for substantive liberty—not limited to rights enumerated elsewhere in the Constitution—to secure equal citizenship stature for men and women of all races and classes. The Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of substantive liberty, together with its guarantee of equality, ensure the full promise of freedom, guaranteeing to all equal dignity in the eyes of the law. In refusing to meaningfully scrutinize state laws that would have closed the vast majority of abortion clinics in Texas, the Fifth Circuit failed to protect the full scope of liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and to fulfill the constitutionally mandated role of courts in securing personal liberty and equal dignity for all.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument on March 2, 2016. On June 27, 2016, the last day of the Term, the Court, as CAC had urged, struck down both the admitting-privileges and the surgical-center requirements of HB 2, holding by a 5-3 vote that they impose an undue burden on abortion access, thus violating the Constitution. Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer stated that the Texas provisions “vastly increase the obstacles confronting women seeking abortions in Texas without providing any benefit to women’s health capable of withstanding any meaningful scrutiny.”

Case Timeline

More from Civil and Human Rights

Civil and Human Rights
U.S. Supreme Court

Caniglia v. Strom

In Caniglia v. Strom, the Supreme Court is considering whether the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement should extend to the home.
Civil and Human Rights
December 7, 2020

The Art of Suffrage: Cartoons Reflect America’s Struggle for Equal Voting Rights

Content Warning to Readers: Some quotations of image captions in this post contain offensive and...
By: Tekla Taylor
Civil and Human Rights
November 4, 2020

RELEASE: Challengers’ Argument In Fulton Could “Require Governments To Allow All Manner Of Discrimination”

WASHINGTON – Following oral argument this morning in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Constitutional Accountability...
Civil and Human Rights
October 1, 2020

The 19th Amendment and Our Unfinished Work

Host: Constitutional Accountability Center
As our nation mourns the loss of Justice Ginsburg—a stalwart champion for gender equality and...
Participants: Elizabeth B. Wydra, Praveen Fernandes, Catherine E. Lhamon, Jocelyn Frye
Civil and Human Rights
August 21, 2020

The Fate of Anti-Discrimination Laws Lies With the Supreme Court

During the October 2020 term, the Supreme Court is set to take up some extremely...
By: Becca Damante
Civil and Human Rights
August 21, 2020

OP-ED: This 19th Amendment Centennial, Ensure that Votes of Black Women Matter

InsideSources
As a woman and constitutional lawyer, I have long held special reverence for the 19th...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra