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Justice Kennedy's Retirement Could Have Big Implications For Abortion Rights In Texas

Anti-abortion stickers at the Texas Republican Convention in San Antonion earlier this month.
Julia Reihs
Anti-abortion stickers at the Texas Republican Convention in San Antonion earlier this month.

Abortion rights advocates in Texas say the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy raises the stakes for laws passed by the state Legislature.

Kennedy has been the swing vote on rulings upholding access to abortions in the U.S. for decades. Most recently, he voted to strike down a Texas lawknown as House Bill 2, which  forced the closure of multiple abortion clinics across the state.

“We are one of the states where the harshest restrictions are tested out, and then if they pass muster, they get through our Legislature and then they go fight it out in the courts,” says Rosann Mariappuram, a board member with NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and a reproductive justice legal fellow. KUT's Ashley Lopez reports

Mariappuram says when it comes to abortion laws, the U.S. Supreme Court has acted as a sort of check on Texas in the past several years – and votes have been really close. So, she says, a change to the makeup of the court is a big deal.

“I think there is a very real concern that – like what we saw with HB 2 – the only way that two of the most damaging restrictions were prevented was by a court battle,” Mariappuram says.

For anti-abortion groups, though, Kennedy's departure from the bench is a big win.

Texas Right to Life said  in a statement that his retirement presents a “historic opportunity” and that it plans to push President Trump to pick a justice who is against abortion rights. The group said it will “continue to pass prudent incremental legislation that saves lives.”

Aimee Arrambide, the program manager and reproductive rights policy specialist at the Public Leadership Institute, says it’s not surprising that anti-abortion groups here are celebrating.

“I think that they are going to be as emboldened as they have been," she says, "but we won’t have that protection of the Supreme Court that we've had in the past. And I think that’s what’s pretty scary.”

Arrambide says under the Trump administration the courts have gotten more conservative – including the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That means if people want to defend abortion rights in Texas, she says, they'll have to do it at the ballot box.

“It demonstrates that we need to pay attention to our state and local elections,” she says.

Kennedy’s retirement could also affect access to contraception, Arrambide says. Conservative groups have pushed legislation allowing employers to deny coverage for their employees on religious grounds, among other things. 

Abortion rights groups in Texas recently filed a lawsuit challenging a slew of old abortion laws that restrict access to the procedure in the state. They say that lawsuit is tied to past Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights, which could change with a new court.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Ashley Lopez is a reporter forWGCUNews. A native of Miami, she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a journalism degree.
Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016. She covers politics and health care, and is part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News reporting collaborative. Previously she worked as a reporter at public radio stations in Louisville, Ky.; Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.