Read more of our coverage of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt here.
Anti-choice activists mixed their messages outside the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday as justices listened to oral arguments in a case that could transform the future of abortion access for pregnant people in Texas and beyond.
Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt challenges provisions of a Texas law, HB 2, which contains a host of measures designed to restrict abortion access. These include requirements that clinics secure admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and that they conform to ambulatory surgical center (ASC) standards, mandates the medical community has deemed medically unnecessary.
While anti-choice movement leaders have tried to sell the narrative that the challenged abortion restrictions of HB 2 were put in place to guarantee safer abortion care rather than to curb access, a prominent figure among them strayed off message at Wednesday’s rally.
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Troy Newman, president of the radical Kansas-based group known as Operation Rescue, described HB 2 as a win for the movement because it closed abortion clinics.
“Are we winning? We are winning!” Newman shouted before a small island of anti-choice activists enveloped by a vast sea of pro-choice supporters holding their own rally.
Newman claimed that the number of abortion clinics nationwide has plummeted—to the point that they are vastly outnumbered by so-called crisis pregnancy centers that work to dissuade people from abortions—since Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that emboldened state legislators to enact more and more restrictions on reproductive care.
“By the way, this law in Texas closed half of all the abortion mills in Texas,” Newman said to loud cheers.
But throughout the anti-choice gathering, speakers argued the opposite point: that the restrictions at issue in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt are simply well-intended regulations not meant to reduce women’s access to abortion or overburden providers.
HB 2 “is not a law to close the clinics,” said Father Frank Pavone, national director of the New York-based organization Priests for Life. “It is not a law to make abortion illegal.”
Several speakers invoked the rogue abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted of first-degree murder for killing babies born alive and of performing a lethally botched abortion, as evidence that Gosnell is the typical abortion provider. Opponents dubbed their rally “Protect Them Both,” referring to both the fetus and the pregnant person in the abortion equation.
Anti-choice activists have argued for decades that abortion is an inherently unsafe procedure and that clinics are largely unregulated, despite evidence to the contrary. Just 0.6 per 100,000 abortion procedures result in death in the United States, according to a 2012 study.
“We do not want the Supreme Court to overturn a very common-sense law that Texas has passed to protect women’s health, to up the standards, to make sure that we are being kind and compassionate, to protect the life of the mom and the baby,” said U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who made a brief appearance at the rally.
Meanwhile, inside the Supreme Court, conservative Justice Samuel Alito pushed back against the premise of the plaintiffs’ challenge to certain provisions of HB 2, questioning whether the law was indeed directly responsible for the 20 abortion clinics that plaintiff attorney Stephanie Toti says shuttered after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed the bill into law in 2013.
Throughout the morning, pro-choice advocates, many wearing purple, vastly outnumbered the anti-choice activists holding blue balloons and blue signs reading, “Protect Women. Protect Life.” Planned Parenthood estimated in a press release that more than 3,000 pro-choice activists showed up to rally. The Rev. Pat Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, which co-sponsored the anti-choice rally, estimated that fewer than 200 anti-choice activists attended. Mahoney said that in years past when the high court has reviewed abortion cases, pro-choice advocates have generally outnumbered opponents.
As he stepped out of the court following the morning arguments, David Daleiden—whose group, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), has waged an attack campaign against Planned Parenthood, claiming without evidence that the reproductive health-care provider illegally profits from selling fetal tissue—joked about the position of the anti-choice rally in the middle of pro-choice supporters.
“It’s like being undercover at an abortion meeting, right?” he said, addressing the crowd. “We’re right in the middle of them.”
Daleiden, who was indicted last month on felony and misdemeanor charges related to CMP’s smear campaign, lamented that the court’s liberal justices acted like “some kind of national medical control board for abortion” during arguments. He said he remains confident the Court will either uphold the Texas law or that the decision will end in a tie after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. A 4-4 decision would effectively uphold the law in the state.
“I’m very confident about what’s going to happen here in June,” Daleiden said. “Stay faithful.”