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Supreme Court to take up Louisiana law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges

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Handsmaid-themed protesters stand outside the Louisiana Supreme Court in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 25, 2019. -
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The Supreme Court said Friday that it will decide the fate of a Louisiana lawthat women's groups said would leave only a single doctor to perform abortions in the entire state.

The measure would require any doctor offering abortion services to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. It was opposed by two Louisiana doctors and a medical clinic.

It's the first major abortion casethe high court will face since Trump-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh succeeded Anthony Kennedy, who voted to uphold Roe v. Wade. The court will hear arguments in the case early next with year, likely making a decision by late June.

Louisiana's legislature enacted the law in 2016, before the makeup of the Supreme Court changed. Unlike an even more restrictive lawthe state passed earlier this year, this one was not intended to provoke the court into overturning the Roe decision. But it would make abortion harder to get.

By a 5-4 vote in February, the Supreme Court blocked enforcement of the measure, agreeing with the challengers that it should remain on hold while the justices decided whether to hear and decide the case. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four liberals in approving the stay request.

In dissenting from the February order, Kavanaugh wrote that because Louisiana said it would put the law into effect gradually, he would have waited to see how many doctors were actually able to get hospital admitting privileges. The two sides in the case offered "competing predictions" about its effect, he said.

The challengers said the law was identical to a requirement in Texas that the Supreme Court struck down three years ago. In that 2016 ruling, the court said Texas imposed an obstacle for women seeking access to abortion services without providing them any medical benefits. Justice Kennedy joined the majority in that case, but supporters of abortion rights fear that Kavanaugh will not be the ally that Kennedy was.

Lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights, representing the Louisiana challengers, said the law's burdens on access to abortion would be worse than those imposed by the Texas law, which forced about half that state's abortion clinics to close. The Louisiana law would shut down every clinic in the state but one, "leaving only one doctor to care for every woman seeing an abortion," the lawyers said.

A federal district court judge ruled in 2017 that the law was likely unconstitutional and issued a stay, blocking its enforcement. But a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted to lift the stay. In a 2-1 ruling, the court said Louisiana's law would present far less of an obstacle than the Texas law would have. Less than one third of Louisiana women seeking an abortion would face even the potential of longer wait times, the court said.

The appeals court concluded that the Louisiana law would not impose an "undue burden" on access to abortion, which has been the Supreme Court's key legal test for challenges to abortion restrictions for nearly three decades.

The Supreme Court re-imposed the stay in February.

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