As It Happens

Clinic worker hopeful after U.S. Supreme Court hears 1st major abortion case of Trump era

Kathaleen Pittman says she never imagined she'd be standing outside the U.S. Supreme Court defending abortion access in her home state of Louisiana.

'We have precedent on our side,' says administrator of Louisiana abortion clinic at the heart of the case

Kathaleen Pittman, the administrator of the Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, La., works in her office. (Rebecca Santana/The Associated Press)


Kathaleen Pittman says she never imagined she'd be standing outside the U.S. Supreme Court defending abortion access in her home state of Louisiana.

Pittman is the administrator of Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, La. The clinic is the lead plaintiff in a six-year legal battle against a state law that puts restrictions on who can provide abortions in the state.

"It's been a very long six years, and had anybody told me six years ago that we would be here today, I would not have believed them at all," Pittman told As It Happens host Carol Off after addressing a rally of supporters outside the court.

"We came. I think we were well-represented. And, you know, it's a relief to have that part of it over, and now we'll just have to wait and see what the justices have to say."

It's the first major abortion case to reach the Supreme Court since U.S. President Donald Trump appointed two justices to the bench, giving it a 5-4 conservative majority. A decision should come by late June.

Law says doctors must have admitting privileges 

At the heart of the case is a 2014 Louisiana law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 48 kilometres of the clinic. 

Proponents of the law say it protects the health and safety of people who seek abortions, while opponents say it's an attempt to whittle away abortion rights by restricting access. 

A federal judge found that just one of Louisiana's three abortion clinics would be able to remain open if the law is allowed to take effect. The federal appeals court in New Orleans, though, upheld the law, setting up the Supreme Court case.

Anti-abortion demonstrators rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Wednesday. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

"It's not a matter of simply requesting privileges, and those privileges being granted. It's a very long process and it is very uncommon for a physician to be granted any type of privileges when they're not active at that particular hospital," Pittman said.

She said abortion clinics could be forced to close in the state if the law is upheld — including, potentially, her employer. 

"If we have more clinic closures, that's going to increase distances. And as I said earlier today, if you don't have access, then that in and of itself is a barrier," she said.

She says the majority of people who seek abortions at the Hope clinic are women living below the poverty line. 

"That means the women we serve are going to struggle even more to obtain the care they need. That means that for many of them, the care they need will be beyond their reach," she said. 

Court appeared divided 

The Supreme Court appeared divided after Wednesday's hearings, reports Reuters and The Associated Press, based on questions from the justices. 

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether the clinic and doctors even had legal standing to bring the challenge because their interests are different from those of their patients.

He suggested that patients seeking abortions should be plaintiffs in such cases.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts questioned whether the court is obliged to uphold precedent from a similar 2016 case. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Justice Elena Kagan argued that abortion is perfectly safe in the state without the requirement. She noted the Hope clinic reported transferring just four patients to a hospital out of roughly 70,000 it has treated over 23 years.

"I don't know a medical procedure where it's lower than that," Kagan said.

Liberal judges Sonya Sotomeyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also questioned whether the law really makes patients safer. Conservative judges Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch remained silent. 

The court's decision may come down to the newly-elected Brett Kavanaugh, and his conservative colleague John Roberts, who is considered the court's ideological centre.

Throughout the hearing, both justices asked questions that seemed to focus on whether he felt bound by a 2016 decision in which the Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Texas.

"We are anticipating and planning on the fact that we have precedent on our side, and that the integrity of the Supreme Court actually means something," Pittman said. 

Duelling rallies outside 

Pro-choice protesters filled the sidewalk in front of the court Wednesday morning, while a smaller group of anti-abortion demonstrators stood across the street.

Anti-abortion rights demonstrator Alex Seghers, centre, from outside New Orleans, holds signs that read 'Patients Before Profits' and 'Feminism: Equality For All' during a rally outside the Supreme Court. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Pittman addressed her clinic's supporters at the rally. 

"That part was a bit overwhelming when you look out and see this mass of humanity knowing they're here in support. It was huge. Very touching. Very invigorating," she said.

"We definitely had quite a few supporters out there."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview with Kathaleen Pittman produced by Katie Geleff.