Supreme Court divided in 1st big abortion case of Trump era

Anti-abortion demonstrators rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 4, 2020.The Supreme Court is taking up the first major abortion case of the Trump era Wednesday, an election-year look at a Louisiana dispute that could reveal how willing the more conservative court is to roll back abortion rights. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A seemingly divided Supreme Court struggled Wednesday with its first major abortion case of the Trump era, leaving Chief Justice John Roberts as the likely deciding vote.

Roberts did not say enough to tip his hand in an hour of spirited arguments at the high court.

The court's election-year look at a Louisiana dispute could reveal how willing the more conservative court is to roll back abortion rights. A decision should come by late June.

The outcome could have huge consequences at a time when several states have passed laws, being challenged in the courts, that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks.

The justices are weighing a Louisiana law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. A federal judge found that just one of Louisiana's three abortion clinics would remain open if the law is allowed to take effect. The federal appeals court in New Orleans, though, upheld the law, setting up the Supreme Court case.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, as she had before, that “among medical procedures, first trimester abortion is among the safest, far safer than childbirth." The abortion clinic in Shreveport at the heart of the case reported transferring just four patients to a hospital out of roughly 70,000 it has treated over 23 years, Justice Elena Kagan noted.

Justice Samuel Alito said the clinic had once had its license suspended, in 2010.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether the court will overrule a 2016 decision in which it struck down a similar law in Texas. Since then, Donald Trump was elected president and he appointed two justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who have shifted the court to the right. Even with those two additions to the court, Roberts almost certainly holds the deciding vote.