SCOTUS declines to reinstate medication-abortion requirement; dissent sees 'unusual disposition'
Image from Shutterstock.com.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday declined to reinstate a federal requirement for women seeking medication abortions to pick up the pill at a hospital, clinic or medical office.
A federal judge had issued an injunction blocking the in-person requirement, ruling that it puts patients at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Ruling on the Department of Justice’s emergency request for a stay, the Supreme Court said it would “hold the government’s application in abeyance” to allow the federal district court to consider whether to dissolve, modify or stay its nationwide injunction.
“Without indicating this court’s views on the merits of the district court’s order or injunction, a more comprehensive record would aid this court’s review,” the Supreme Court said.
One ground the district court could consider is whether relevant circumstances had changed, the Supreme Court said.
The disposition might have indicated that the court was deadlocked, even though there were only two dissenters, according to the Washington Post. The New York Times, USA Today and SCOTUSblog also have coverage.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the dissent, which was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.
“There is no legally sound reason for this unusual disposition,” Alito wrote. “The only justification even hinted by the court is the possibility that modification of the injunction may be required due to changes in the severity of the problems caused by the COVID–19 pandemic, but that possibility does not justify the court’s refusal to rule.”
Alito said denying the state request would highlight the inconsistency in the court’s COVID-19 rulings.
“In response to the pandemic, state and local officials have imposed unprecedented restrictions on personal liberty, including severe limitations on First Amendment rights,” Alito wrote. “Officials have drastically limited speech, banning or restricting public speeches, lectures, meetings and rallies. The free exercise of religion also has suffered previously unimaginable restraints, and this court has stood by while that has occurred.”
Alito said the Supreme Court took a “hands-off approach” when it refused to block restrictions on religious services in California. In that case, the Supreme Court said, unless broad limits are exceeded, health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic “should not be subject to second-guessing” by judges.
The Supreme Court also refused to interfere with Nevada’s 50-person limit on religious services, apparently deeming religious attendance to be “a greater threat to public health than engaging in the diversions offered by the state’s casinos,” Alito said.
While the Supreme Court allowed restrictions on First Amendment rights in those cases, this case is different because the district court “saw the pandemic as a ground for expanding the abortion right recognized in Roe v. Wade,” Alito said.
“This case presents important issues that richly merit review,” he concluded.
The case is Food and Drug Administration v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.