Tens of thousands of people gathered in the nation's capital Friday for the annual "March for Life," but anti-abortion leaders had their minds fixed on a date nearly six weeks away — when a Supreme Court reshaped by President Trump will hear what could be the most important abortion cases in decades.
Few expect the twin cases out of Louisiana to result in the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 high court ruling that made abortion a constitutional right.
Instead, both sides say the decision in those cases could allow states to enact tough laws that, while keeping abortions technically legal, make them impossible to get. And that could make New York – which passed a broad abortion rights law last year – a destination state for women from around the country who are seeking to end their pregnancies.
Both sides seem focused, though, on the larger truth: that the decision in the Louisiana cases could, in effect, lead to the greatest limits on abortion access in America in nearly half a century.
"I think it would be a wonderful platform for us to be able to work from to at least restrict abortion access," said Cheryl Calire, director of pro-life activities at the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
New York Attorney General Letitia James said that's exactly what the Louisiana law under review at the high court would do, which is why she led 22 attorneys general nationwide in filing a brief at the high court opposing the Louisiana law.
"This law is simply about controlling women’s bodies, controlling their choices and controlling their freedom, which is why we will continue to fight it every step of the way," James said.
The cases the Supreme Court will hear March 4 — June Medical Services v. Gee and Gee v. June Medical Services – focus on a 2014 Louisiana law that barred doctors from performing abortions unless they have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
Supporters of the state law say it's necessary because abortion can be a dangerous procedure. To prove that point, anti-abortion organizations filed a brief in the case that lists dozens of 911 calls stemming from abortions between 2009 and 2019.
"Abortion, as currently practiced in the United States (and other developed nations), is often the occasion of medical mishaps, even serious injuries and deaths," said that brief, filed by the conservative American Center for Law and Justice on behalf of two similarly minded medical groups.
Abortion rights supporters disagree vehemently and say the Louisiana law is merely a cloak for its authors' real intentions: limiting abortion access.
Few doctors who perform abortions have hospital admitting privileges, particularly in conservative states such as Louisiana, so pro-choice leaders see the law as a de-facto abortion ban that could spread to other states, if approved by the Supreme Court.
“Access to abortion is hanging by a thread in this country, and this case is what could snap that thread," said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Both sides see the Louisiana case as potentially momentous in part because the Supreme Court overturned a similar Texas law three years ago, saying it posed an unconstitutional undue burden on abortion access.
One key thing changed since that ruling. President Trump appointed and the Senate confirmed two new Supreme Court justices, including one – Brett Kavanaugh – whose views on abortion appear more conservative than that of his predecessor, retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.
That leaves local abortion opponents hoping for the best out of the Louisiana cases, even though they would have no immediate impact in New York.
The consequences for New York
While states such as Louisiana have been working to restrict abortion rights, New York did just the opposite last year. The state's Reproductive Health Act means that abortion will remain legal in the state even if Roe v. Wade is overturned. In addition, the state law expanded the type of medical providers who can perform abortions and made it easier for women to end pregnancies later in their terms.
That state law energized abortion opponents in the Buffalo area, drawing about 700 people from the region to Friday's March for Life, said Stasia Zoladz Vogel, the president of the Buffalo Regional Right to Life Committee.
Over time, Vogel said, it's possible that the combination of tough restrictions in other states and looser ones in New York could make the Empire State something of a destination for women from out of state who are seeking to end their pregnancies.
She said the combined moves could recreate the environment of 1969, when New York legalized abortion at a time when it remained illegal in much of the rest of the country.
"They were flying women in to have abortions in New York at the time, and that may happen again," she said.
Vanessa M. Barnabei, professor and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University at Buffalo, agreed that if the Supreme Court approves the Louisiana abortion law, other states could enact strict new abortion limits of their own, and that could have a long-term impact on New York.
She noted that state legislatures in Pennsylvania and Ohio have considered narrowing abortion rights, and if that happens, it would be no surprise if women from those states came to nearby New York to end their pregnancies.
Barnabei also vehemently disagreed with the premise of the Louisiana cases, which argue that abortion is dangerous to the mother. Performed in a reputable medical facility, she said, "it's one of the safest procedures any doctor ever does."
But abortion will be unsafe, she said, if strict laws like the one the Supreme Court is reviewing will once again make it hard for women in some states to obtain abortions from reputable medical professionals.
"Women will always get abortions," Barnabei said. "Outlawing abortion will not make it go away; it will only make it unsafe."