Supreme Court dodges political controversy with abortion pill case: takeaways from key ruling

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday sidestepped an organized effort by a conservative advocacy group to force the justices into ruling on the legality of a widely used abortion drug.

In turning away a challenge by a group of anti-abortion doctors, a unanimous court avoided a case that in one swoop could have threatened access to the procedure nationwide and the power of the Food and Drug Administration to approve medications.

The justices got clear of the political dynamite by ruling that the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine didn’t have standing to sue. The group had argued that, by making mifepristone widely available, the FDA had increased the chance of complications – and the likelihood that a conservative physician might have to perform an emergency abortion on a pregnant woman whose life was threatened by an incomplete procedure.

But the group's lawyers, led by Erin Hawley of the Alliance for Defending Freedom, couldn’t provide an example of this ever happening. Hawley is married to Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri.

The hot potato case made its way to Washington through the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Texas, a hardline conservative appointed by Donald Trump who suspended the FDA’s approval of mifepristone last year.

The right-leaning 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana restored the FDA's approval but upheld other parts of his decision – setting the stage for Supreme Court arguments in March – where the justices were openly skeptical.

Thursday’s unanimous decision was a defeat for the anti-abortion movement and a break from controversy for the high court, which often splits on ideological lines on hot-button issues. But the abortion battle will soon return to the high court: A decision is expected soon on whether doctors can provide emergency abortions in states that banned the procedure after the court overturned Roe v. Wade.Here are five takeaways from today’s ruling:

A unanimous decision

Despite the court’s deep ideological split over abortion, the decision was unanimous. That wasn’t a surprise given the skepticism even the conservative justices showed during oral arguments about whether the anti-abortion doctors had legal grounds to challenge the FDA’s loosening of restrictions on mifepristone.

As Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court, “a plaintiff’s desire to make a drug less available for others does not establish standing to sue.”

It was notable, however, that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito did not dissent despite opposing last year the court’s decision to allow full access to the drug while the challenge was being litigated.

This isn't the end of the abortion war

Both abortion opponents and abortion rights advocates agree on one thing: the fight is not over.

Three states – Missouri, Kansas and Idaho – want to challenge mifepristone.

And while the court said the anti-abortion doctors hadn’t shown sufficient cause for a suit, the justices didn’t rule out the possibility that someone else could make a better case.

“It is not clear that no one else would have standing to challenge FDA’s relaxed regulation of mifepristone,” Kavanaugh wrote.

He also noted that challengers could take their objections to the executive branch, Congress, or the ballot box.

The Biden administration warned that Republicans could find ways of restricting mifepristone if they win control of the White House in the November elections.

Anti-abortion advocates, such as Katie Daniel of SBA Pro-Life America, vowed to keep fighting.

“It is a sad day for all who value women’s health and unborn children’s lives, but the fight to stop dangerous mail-order abortion drugs is not over," Daniel said.

No mention of Comstock Act

Anti-abortion groups did not get an assist, however, in their efforts to use a 19th-century obscenity law to restrict abortion. The long-dormant Comstock Act prohibits mailing "lewd or lascivious" material, as well as anything that could be used to cause an abortion.

Kacsmaryk, the federal district judge who first heard the mifepristone challenge, said the Comstock Act prohibits the mailing of abortion drugs.

Alito and Thomas both raised the issue in oral arguments.

While it was never likely that a majority was going to weigh in on the Comstock Act, no one wrote separately to endorse it.

Starkly different reactions from Biden, Trump

The decision landed in the middle of a razor-sharp election battle between President Joe Biden and Trump − and there was a big difference in how they reacted.

Biden – as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra – quickly praised the decision, while stressing the fight continues.

More: Kamala Harris declares 'health crisis' in historic visit to abortion clinic in Minnesota

Biden’s campaign convened a call with reporters in which campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said reproductive freedom is at stake in the election.

By contrast, the Trump campaign's statement on the ruling did not even mention the word “abortion,” a topic that the candidate has said could hurt the Republicans this fall.

“The Supreme Court has unanimously decided 9-0. The matter is settled. This election is about correcting the weakness, failures and dishonesty of the Biden crime family,” said campaign spokeswoman Danielle Alvarez.

Doctors can't be forced to perform abortions

The Supreme Court stressed that doctors who object to abortions don’t have to provide them.

“Federal conscience laws definitively protect doctors from being required to perform abortions or to provide other treatment that violates their consciences,” Kavanaugh wrote.

The court said that is true even in “health care deserts” where no other doctors are readily available.

During oral arguments, the Justice Department’s lawyer agreed that a doctor opposed to abortion could raise a conscientious objection if faced with a patient experiencing a complication from mifepristone.

In its decision, the court also said that a federal law – the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act − requiring hospitals to provide emergency care does not override conscience protections because the act imposes rules on hospitals, not individual doctors.

The justices are still deciding whether the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act requires hospitals to provide emergency abortions in states that largely ban the procedure.

Contributing: David Jackson

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme court abortion ruling side-steps hot button issue: takeaways