Early in the morning on Wednesday, March 2nd, abortion rights supporters from across the country had already begun to gather at the Supreme Court in support of the petitioners in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the case which could throw out two of the most stringent provisions from 2013’s omnibus abortion bill, House Bill 2. For many Texans, this was an incredible moment over two years in the making, with humble beginnings in a committee room at the Texas capitol that June.
Some, like University of Texas student Justin Atkinson, had been waiting all night long through rain and freezing temperatures for the chance to hear the oral arguments in this case – which has the potential to be a landmark decision in the struggle for abortion access not only in Texas, but across the country.
Atkinson, who is in D.C. on an Archer Fellowship, spoke of a sense of community as he met other Texans in line in the cold, and called the opportunity to be in the room during the oral arguments “humbling.”
“The summer after I graduated high school, I watched Wendy Davis’ filibuster live online,” Atkinson said, “so it meant a great deal to have followed this case from its beginning and watch it argued before the highest court in the United States.”
That feeling pervaded the rally on the steps of the Supreme Court, where a sea of supporters packed the sidewalk and spilled out across the street. Carrying signs from the procedural (“The Burden Is Undue”) to the comical (“May the fetus you save grow up to be a gay abortion provider”), a seemingly endless crowd stood and cheered and cried as four hours of speakers testified to the importance of abortion access, the harm of abortion stigma, and the commitment of each and every person to keep fighting until these TRAP laws are flushed from the statutes of every state in the nation.
Amanda Williams, a native Texan and the Executive Director of the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, brought the crowd to tears with her abortion story, and reminded everyone gathered there that every person deserves access to compassionate care.”We are all worthy,” Williams said, “We are not alone. And we should not be ashamed.”
While the rally continued on the steps, the women in the Supreme Court took every opportunity to poke holes in the lies that Texas Republicans have been presenting as the foundation for the law’s constitutionality. Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, along with Justice Breyer, refused to mince words when questioning the logic behind the state’s arguments.
Ginsburg questioned the state’s inclusion of access to clinics in New Mexico for residents of El Paso, as New Mexico does not have similar restrictions in statute, so the clinics these Texans have access to would not meet the standards Texas claims necessary to protect the health of women. But when defending this law, which has caused El Pasoans to have to cross the state line to access care, the state points to the proximity of clinics in New Mexico when arguing that the burden on Texans under HB 2 should not be considered undue.
When presented with the state’s argument that it is within their right to place higher restrictions on abortion procedures than other medical practices that can carry significantly higher risks of complications, Kagan asked, “…why would Texas do that?”
Not only was this the first abortion case taken up by the Supreme Court in decades, it was also the first time that the issue had come before a court with more than one female justice on the bench. And like the women and allies on the steps outside, those women used their voices and their power to shine a light on the truth: this isn’t about women’s health, and it never was. It is a thinly veiled attempt to restrict access to abortion care in Texas by placing increasingly stringent obstacles in the way of patients and providers.
A decision in the case is expected in June.
The full text of the oral arguments is available online here.