Supreme Court Cases Could Have Major Impact on ‘Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice’

June 11, 2020 by Kate Michael
U.S. Supreme Court Building. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court heard a number of cases this term that could have major implications for reproductive rights. While each case heard by the Supreme Court is significant, the collective decisions on multiple health care-related cases could be much more consequential. 

The non-profit Center for American Progress convened a virtual discussion of major cases before the Supreme Court that are destined to impact women’s health care and family planning. Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO, National Women’s Law Center (NWLC); Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director, National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR); and Nancy Northup, president and CEO, Center for Reproductive Rights Leading considered these relevant cases and how the Trump administration’s judicial nominations could pose a threat to women, LGBTQ people, and people of color.

Among the major issues discussed were whether access to abortion care may be halted in Louisiana in June Medical Services v. Russo; whether employers and universities have broad discretion to deny birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act in Trump v. Pennsylvania; and whether the protection against sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents discrimination against LGBTQ people in Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The outcomes could be devastating to those who believe these cases erode access to necessary reproductive health and rights. They argue that the implications of these cases threaten to undo decades of progress and impede people from living safe and healthy lives. 

“Many of us feel that we are in the worst sort of Groundhog Day possible,” said Graves. She said her colleagues at the NWLC feel they keep ligating the same cases, and they aren’t pleased that “the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about constitutionality yet again.”

This is because, as Northrup pointed out, the same issue from June Medical Services v. Russo, with strikingly similar language, was already litigated and deemed unconstitutional in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016. 

Both laws, designed to close down clinics, are “blatant discrimination against abortion providers,” according to Northrup, who insisted there was no medical basis for either law, that they both harm women, and that one has already been struck down as unconstitutional. She feels that this “truly identical” law in Louisiana, will have the same, if not greater, impact, essentially gutting immediate access to abortion care in the state and undermining legal precedent, opening the door for more independent state restrictions and copycat laws.

Graves believes that cases like these are part of a broader strategy to attack reproductive rights, and in turn, “women’s ability to live, work, go to school, and simply live” with “safety, and dignity, and equality in this country.” Since decisions from the Supreme Court affect lives and communities in meaningful ways, she says these are “decisions around who matters in this country,” and she worries about what she considers conservative judges’ efforts to “undermine women’s healthcare” and “abandon women.”

Particularly in the case of Trump v. Pennsylvania, Graves is concerned about access to birth control. “Birth control is central not only to people’s health care but also their ability to be equal in this country,” she said, arguing that the case goes against key protections of the Affordable Care Act, which states that employers must furnish birth control without out-of-pocket costs. “Birth control costs can be insurmountable for many individuals, so this requirement has been a dramatic game-changer,” Graves said.

Also linked to these cases on access to birth control and abortion is a Title VII case that seeks to broaden sexual discrimination to include gender identification and sexual orientation. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. This case looks to provide further protections for LGBTQ people on gender identity and conforming to gender stereotypes.

Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is important, NCLR’s Rupert-Gordon said, because “employment discrimination also impacts reproductive rights.” She argued that most people receive health care through their jobs, and “discrimination in the workforce makes services less available.” She cited the conundrum that Americans have the right to marry the same sex, but could be fired for taking their same-sex spouse to an office party. “We have to make sure that victories are more than symbolic,” she said.

“[These cases are] about the fundamental dignity and equality of all people and how the courts interpret that,” said Northrup. “Ours is not a modern constitution; it is an old one,” she said, “that is cemented in a time that is… not the one we want for today… that refuses to see structural barriers to equality. [We] need judges that understand the inherent worth and dignity of the diversity of the American people.” 

She contends that the deluge of recent litigation is in response to “hundreds of restrictions on abortion care in the last decades, escalating in severity.” Northrup says it’s about “fundamental equality… to control your life and your future.” 

The goal, for Graves, “is for patient decisions to be made by [patients] in consultation with their provider.” 

Still, regardless of the outcome in these cases, Northrup said, “There is always another road.” She joined with Graves and Rupert-Gordon to encourage activists to organize and speak out for change, as well as to elect people that “understand the importance of reproductive rights.” 

Northrup insisted, “Courts are [but] one voice in a dialogue about equality and justice.”

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