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This Case Could Have A Major Impact On Abortion Access In The U.S.

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Refinery29 is reporting on the ground in Washington, D.C., this week. Check back for more of our coverage on the battle over abortion rights.

Impassioned supporters on both sides of the issue rallied outside of the Supreme Court this morning as "closely divided" justices heard oral arguments for one of the most significant abortion-rights cases in decades.

The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt is a challenge to a 2013 Texas law that instituted new requirements for abortion providers in the state.
Photographed by Joshua Yospyn.
Pro-abortion rights supporters Kelsey Schorr, Tori Shriver and Jessie Savidge outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Supporters of the HB2 law say the new rules are aimed at protecting the health of women. But those fighting the measure say its real purpose is to restrict access to abortion by creating medically unnecessary restrictions that clinics simply can't meet. If the law is upheld, just 10 abortion providers are expected to survive in a state home to 5.4 million women of reproductive age, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is among the groups working to overturn the measure.

The justices appeared "closely divided" on the case during the 85-minute session, according to reports from inside the court. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is expected to be a deciding vote, expressed both concerns about the restrictions and questions about whether the law has actually decreased access to abortion, the Associated Press reported.

Opponents of the law found the lines of questioning encouraging. Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards told Refinery29 that she was "really pleased [with] how much women were brought into the room today." Personal stories from women who have had abortions were a major part of their argument against the case; more than 100 shared their own experiences in briefs filed with the court.

"I think the justices were very intent in understanding what the impact has been on women," she said. "I was really struck by how little justification, really no justification, the state could give on why they had passed these restrictions that were supposedly on women’s health."

Attorneys defending the law said they focused on explaining to the justices why the requirements were necessary.

“This case is not about overturning Roe v.Wade," Scott Keller, Texas' solicitor general, told reporters after the arguments. "The issue in this case is whether Texas can enact valid patient regulations that improve safety."

Hundreds of people played music, chanted, and waved signs as the arguments got underway Wednesday morning. Dozens had camped out in front of the court overnight — some even waited days in hopes of getting a seat inside to watch the arguments live.

"We have seen in our state just how insurmountable, how beyond undue, how unjust these burdens are, whether it is waiting periods, the forced sonogram...the distance they have to travel to a clinic or having that clinic close down overnight because of these laws," Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said at a rally outside the court on Wednesday morning. "We need to stop the sham. People in Texas are suffering."

Just feet away, activists defending the law addressed a crowd of their own. That group of pro-life activists included Aimee Murphy, a 27-year-old from Pittsburgh who arrived on the Supreme Court steps at 10 p.m. on Tuesday — 12 hours before the arguments were set to begin.

"As a pro-life feminist, I oppose all acts of forced violence against human beings," she told Refinery29. "Believing that and knowing that abortion kills a human being, I'm out here to demand creative, non-violence options to abortion."

The ruling could have impacts beyond Texas, as other states have enacted similar laws in recent years. But a current vacancy on the court, created by last month's death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, means it's highly unlikely that the court will uphold the law in a way that sets a precedent nationwide.

A 4-4 split decision, however, could allow the restrictions to remain in place in Texas and other Southern states covered by the lower court that upheld HB2. The justices could also opt to send the case back to a lower court or rehear the case once the vacancy is filled.

Which option they choose won't be known until late June, when the court is set to release its decision.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comments from advocates on both sides of the case.
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