Supreme Court divided in high-stakes Texas abortion case

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US Supreme Court Case on Texas Abortion Law Could End Up in Tie

WASHINGTON, March 2 (Reuters) - A closely divided U.S. Supreme Court struggled with its biggest abortion case in years on Wednesday, with pivotal Justice Anthony Kennedy voicing concerns about a restrictive Texas law yet stopping short of signaling he would strike it down.

The court's four liberal justices indicated they believed the law, which imposes strict regulations on abortion doctors and clinic buildings, intrudes on a woman's constitutional right to end a pregnancy established in a 1973 ruling.

SEE ALSO: No breakthrough in Supreme Court dispute between Obama, Republicans

Conservative justices including Kennedy expressed doubt during the 85-minute oral argument about claims by abortion providers who asserted that the Republican-backed 2013 law forced numerous clinics to shut down.

Kennedy at one point suggested sending the case back to a lower court to get further evidence on the law's impact, including an assessment of the ability of existing Texas clinics to meet the demand for abortions.

If there is evidence new clinics that meet the state's regulations have increased capacity to perform abortions, it would show the law has provided a "beneficial effect," Kennedy said.

See photos from outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday

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Supreme Court hears Texas abortion case
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Supreme Court divided in high-stakes Texas abortion case
A demonstrator holds up signs in support of pro-life rights outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Supreme Court justices clashed in their first abortion showdown in almost a decade as a pivotal justice suggested the court could stop short of a definitive ruling on a disputed Texas law regulating clinics. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Demonstrators hold up signs in support of pro-choice rights outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Supreme Court justices clashed in their first abortion showdown in almost a decade as a pivotal justice suggested the court could stop short of a definitive ruling on a disputed Texas law regulating clinics. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, listens to a question from a member of the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Supreme Court justices clashed in their first abortion showdown in almost a decade as a pivotal justice suggested the court could stop short of a definitive ruling on a disputed Texas law regulating clinics. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 2: Anti-abortion advocates stand in protest outside of the Supreme Court, March 2, 2016 in Washington, DC. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt case, where the justices will consider a Texas law requiring that clinic doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals and that clinics upgrade their facilities to standards similar to hospitals. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 2: Pro-choice advocates (left) and anti-abortion advocates (right) rally outside of the Supreme Court, March 2, 2016 in Washington, DC. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt case, where the justices will consider a Texas law requiring that clinic doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals and that clinics upgrade their facilities to standards similar to hospitals. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A demonstrators holds up a sign in support of pro-choice rights outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Supreme Court justices clashed in their first abortion showdown in almost a decade as a pivotal justice suggested the court could stop short of a definitive ruling on a disputed Texas law regulating clinics. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A demonstrator holds up a sign in support of pro-life rights outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Supreme Court justices clashed in their first abortion showdown in almost a decade as a pivotal justice suggested the court could stop short of a definitive ruling on a disputed Texas law regulating clinics. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A demonstrator holds up a sign in support of abortion rights outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Supreme Court justices clashed in their first abortion showdown in almost a decade as a pivotal justice suggested the court could stop short of a definitive ruling on a disputed Texas law regulating clinics. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 2: Pro-choice advocates rally outside of the Supreme Court, March 2, 2016 in Washington, DC. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt case, where the justices will consider a Texas law requiring that clinic doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals and that clinics upgrade their facilities to standards similar to hospitals. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 2: Anti-abortion advocates rally outside of the Supreme Court, March 2, 2016 in Washington, DC. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt case, where the justices will consider a Texas law requiring that clinic doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals and that clinics upgrade their facilities to standards similar to hospitals. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 2: Pro-choice advocates rally outside of the Supreme Court, March 2, 2016 in Washington, DC. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt case, where the justices will consider a Texas law requiring that clinic doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals and that clinics upgrade their facilities to standards similar to hospitals. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Pro-abortion rights protesters rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. The abortion debate is returning to the Supreme Court in the midst of a raucous presidential campaign and less than three weeks after Justice Antonin Scaliaâs death. The justices are taking up the biggest case on the topic in nearly a quarter century and considering whether a Texas law that regulates abortion clinics hampers a womanâs constitutional right to obtain an abortion. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Pro-abortion rights protesters rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. The abortion debate is returning to the Supreme Court in the midst of a raucous presidential campaign and less than three weeks after Justice Antonin Scaliaâs death. The justices are taking up the biggest case on the topic in nearly a quarter century and considering whether a Texas law that regulates abortion clinics hampers a womanâs constitutional right to obtain an abortion. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Members of the public arrive to visit the Supreme Court as anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights protesters rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. The abortion debate is returning to the Supreme Court in the midst of a raucous presidential campaign and less than three weeks after Justice Antonin Scaliaâs death. The justices are taking up the biggest case on the topic in nearly a quarter century and considering whether a Texas law that regulates abortion clinics hampers a womanâs constitutional right to obtain an abortion. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Members of the public arrive to visit the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 2, 2016, as anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights protesters rally outside the court in. The abortion debate is returning to the Supreme Court in the midst of a raucous presidential campaign and less than three weeks after Justice Antonin Scalia's death. The justices are taking up the biggest case on the topic in nearly a quarter century and considering whether a Texas law that regulates abortion clinics hampers a woman's constitutional right to obtain an abortion. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. speaks outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 2, 2016, as the abortion debate returned to the Supreme Court in the midst of a raucous presidential campaign and less than three weeks after Justice Antonin Scalia's death. The justices are taking up the biggest case on the topic in nearly a quarter century Wednesday, considering whether a Texas law that regulates abortion clinics hampers a woman's constitutional right to obtain an abortion. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The flag flies at half staff in honor of Justice Antonin Scalia, as members of the public arrive to visit the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 2, 2016, as anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights protesters rally outside the court. The abortion debate is returning to the Supreme Court in the midst of a raucous presidential campaign and less than three weeks after Justice Antonin Scaliaâs death. The justices are taking up the biggest case on the topic in nearly a quarter century and considering whether a Texas law that regulates abortion clinics hampers a womanâs constitutional right to obtain an abortion. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. speaks outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 2, 2016, as the abortion debate returned to the Supreme Court in the midst of a raucous presidential campaign and less than three weeks after Justice Antonin Scalia's death. The justices are taking up the biggest case on the topic in nearly a quarter century Wednesday, considering whether a Texas law that regulates abortion clinics hampers a woman's constitutional right to obtain an abortion. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Supporters of legal access to abortion, as well as anti-abortion activists, rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, March 2, 2016, as the Court hears oral arguments in the case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which deals with access to abortion. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of legal access to abortion, as well as anti-abortion activists, rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, March 2, 2016, as the Court hears oral arguments in the case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which deals with access to abortion. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of legal access to abortion, as well as anti-abortion activists, rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, March 2, 2016, as the Court hears oral arguments in the case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which deals with access to abortion. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of legal access to abortion rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, March 2, 2016, as the Court hears oral arguments in the case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which deals with access to abortion. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of legal access to abortion rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, March 2, 2016, as the Court hears oral arguments in the case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which deals with access to abortion. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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The outcome appeared to be in the hands of Kennedy, who often casts the deciding vote in close rulings. In past abortion cases, he has backed a fundamental right to abortion while supporting some restrictions.

The court was shorthanded with only eight justices following the Feb. 13 death of conservative Antonin Scalia, leaving the liberals and conservatives evenly divided.

The best that supporters of the law could hope for would be a 4-4 split that would let stand a lower-court ruling that affirmed the Texas regulations but set no nationwide legal precedent on whether other states could enact similar measures.

However, a such ruling leaving the Texas law intact could encourage other states with anti-abortion legislatures to pass similar laws.

Kennedy gave little indication he would be willing to uphold the law in full, as his three conservative colleagues would be expected to do. If Kennedy sides with the court's four liberals, the court could either send the case back to the lower court or strike it down.

A ruling is due by the end of June. A decision sending the case to a lower court could mean the dispute might not be resolved for years.

Data curated by InsideGov

Some justices questioned the lack of evidence on why specific clinics closed after the law was passed, which could be addressed if new legal proceedings take place. Abortion providers assert that the law caused 22 of 41 clinics to close, but the state contests those numbers.

"What is the evidence in the record that the closures are related to the legislation?" conservative Chief Justice John Roberts asked.

Texas contends the law, passed by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by a Republican governor, protects women's health. The abortion providers who have challenged it assert that the regulations are aimed at shutting down their clinics.

RELATED GALLERY: Demonstrators take on strict limits on abortion in Texas

26 PHOTOS
Texas abortion protests, closed clinics
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Supreme Court divided in high-stakes Texas abortion case
College students and abortion rights activists hold signs during a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, in Austin, Texas. The demonstrators are urging an easing of strict limits on abortion that prompted massive protests but were overwhelmingly approved last session. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Two signs that read "Who Lobbied For This?, " and "We Need Healthcare Options, Not Obstacles", are held by attendees to a rally in front of city hall where a group of nearly 200 gathered to protest the approval of sweeping new restrictions on abortion, Monday, July 15, 2013, in Dallas. The gathering came as part of the National Day of Action that included similar rallies planned in several cities. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Activists tie on hospital gowns as they prepare to protest House Bill 3994 in the rotunda of the Texas Capitol, Friday, May 22, 2015, in Austin, Texas. Part of the bill would require women to present a government-issued ID before receiving abortion services. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
FILE - In this Aug. 19, 2014 file photo, a group holds signs about Texas Gov. Rick Perry as he leaves the Blackwell Thurman Criminal Justice Center after he was booked and released, in Austin, Texas. Austin has made itself a painful exception to Republican rule in Texas. The big college town is home to the grand jury that indicted Perry while he was in office and to judges who authorized a gay wedding and struck down abortion restrictions and GOP cuts to public schools. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott this month is signing laws that will draw power away from solidly Democratic Travis County and weaken its local jurisdiction over state business done inside its borders. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
FILE - In this July 12, 2013 file photo, Cecile Richards, daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, greets abortion rights advocates as they leave the State Capitol rotunda in Austin, Texas. Abortions have declined in states where new laws make it harder to have them - but they’ve also waned in states where abortion rights are protected, an Associated Press survey finds. Nearly everywhere, in red states and blue, abortions are down since 2010. "Better access to birth control and sex education are the biggest factors in reducing unintended pregnancies," said Richards. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa, File)
A man walks past the former site of a clinic that offered abortions in El Paso, Texas, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. Abortion services for many Texas women require a round trip of more than 200 miles, or a border-crossing into Mexico or New Mexico after federal appellate judges allowed full implementation of a law that has closed more than 80 percent of Texas' abortion clinics. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, center, talks with news reporters during a round table talk in his office at the Texas Capitol, Wednesday, June 3, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Rep. Mike Schoefield, R-Katy, packs up his desk after the House adjourned on the final day of the legislative session in the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Monday, June 1, 2015, in Austin, Texas. Guns, tax cuts and border security: new Republican Gov. Greg Abbott made those priorities his first six months on the job, and after the Texas Legislature ends Monday, he'll claim plenty of victories. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shares a laugh with news reporters during a round table talk in his office at the Texas Capitol, Wednesday, June 3, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
A man walks into a clinic that offers abortions in Santa Teresa, N.M., Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. Abortion services for many Texas women require a round trip of more than 200 miles, or a border-crossing into Mexico or New Mexico after federal appellate judges allowed full implementation of a law that has closed more than 80 percent of Texas' abortion clinics. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)
Texas Rep. Matt Krause, R- Fort Worth, left, talks with Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, right, in the House Chamber, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Austin, Texas. Morrison has proposed a bill making it more difficult for girls younger than 18 who face extreme circumstances to have abortions without their parents' consent. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Anti-abortion supporters march to the Texas Capitol during a Texas Rally for Life, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
A man walks into a clinic that offers abortions in Santa Teresa, N.M., Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. Abortion services for many Texas women require a round trip of more than 200 miles, or a border-crossing into Mexico or New Mexico after federal appellate judges allowed full implementation of a law that has closed more than 80 percent of Texas' abortion clinics. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, talks with Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-Brownsville, right, in the Senate Chamber, Tuesday, May 5, 2015, in Austin, Texas. Under a bill that has cleared the Republican-controlled Senate Tuesday, most abortions in Texas could not be covered by insurance purchased through the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2015 file photo, college students and abortion rights activists hold signs and pray during a rally on the steps of the then Texas Capitol, to urge an easing of strict limits on abortions, in Austin, Texas. Abortions have declined in states where new laws make it harder to have them - but they’ve also waned in states where abortion rights are protected, an Associated Press survey finds. Nearly everywhere, in red states and blue, abortions are down since 2010. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
Anti-abortion supporters carry signs and a life-sized photo of Pope John Paul II as they march to the Texas Capitol during a Texas Rally for Life, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Anti-abortion supporters march through downtown as they head to the Texas Capitol during a Texas Rally for Life, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AUSTIN, TX - JULY 01: Supporters of Texas women's right to reproductive decisions rally at the Texas State capitol on July 1, 2013 in Austin, Texas. This is first day of a second legislative special session called by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pass an restrictive abortion law through the Texas legislature. The first attempt was defeated after opponents of the law were able to stall the vote until after first special session had ended. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - JULY 01: Supporters of Texas women's right to reproductive decisions rally at the Texas State capitol on July 1, 2013 in Austin, Texas. This is first day of a second legislative special session called by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pass an restrictive abortion law through the Texas legislature. The first attempt was defeated after opponents of the law were able to stall the vote until after first special session had ended. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - JULY 01: A pro-life supporter in the Texas State capitol on July 1, 2013 in Austin, Texas. This is first day of a second legislative special session called by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pass an restrictive abortion law through the Texas legislature. The first attempt was defeated after opponents of the law were able to stall the vote until after first special session had ended. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - JULY 01: Texas Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Ft. Worth) leads a rally in support of Texas women's right to reproductive decisions at the Texas state capitol on July 1, 2013 in Austin, Texas. This is first day of a second legislative special session called by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pass an restrictive abortion law through the Texas legislature. The first attempt was defeated after opponents of the law were able to stall the vote until after first special session had ended. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 25: Reproductive rights advocates fill the Texas capitol celebrating the defeat of the controversial anti-abortion bill SB5, which was up for a vote on the last day of the legislative special session June 25, 2013 in Austin, Texas. A combination of State Sen. Wendy Davis' (D-Ft. Worth) 13-hour filibuster and protests by reproductive rights advocates helped to ultimately defeat the controversial abortion legislation at midnight. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Aug. 11, 2014 file photo, the Hilltop Women's Reproductive clinic is photographed in El Paso, Texas. A federal judge Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, threw out new Texas abortion restrictions that would have effectively closed more than a dozen clinics in the state. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel sided with clinics that sued over one of the most disputed measures of a sweeping anti-abortion bill signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2013. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca, File)
File - In this Oct. 29, 2013 file photo, Dottie and Tom Knodell, opponents of abortion, hold signs outside a Planned Parenthood Clinic, in San Antonio. A U.S. appeals court on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, issued a ruling reinstating most of Texas' tough new abortion restrictions, which means as many as 12 clinics will not be able to perform the procedure starting as soon as Friday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
FILE - In this July 12, 2013, file photo, abortion rights supporters rally on the floor of the State Capitol rotunda in Austin, Texas. A sharply divided Supreme Court on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, allowed Texas to continue enforcing abortion restrictions that opponents say have led more than a third of the state's clinics to stop providing abortions. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa, File)
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MEDICALLY INDUCED ABORTIONS

In a sign that he was not comfortable with aspects of the law, Kennedy sounded concerned about a possible increase in surgical abortions prompted in part by the state's separate new restrictions on medically induced abortions, in which women take pills to terminate a pregnancy. Kennedy said that "this law has really increased the number of surgical procedures as opposed to medical procedures, and that this may not be medically wise."

Abortion rights advocates say surgical abortions increased because of the delays women seeking an abortion faced as a result of the 2013 law.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned the need for a provision of the law requiring clinics to have costly, hospital-grade facilities, when abortions almost always are low-risk procedures for the woman.

"What was the problem the legislature was responding to that it needed to improve the facilities for women's health?" Ginsburg asked.

The Texas law requires abortion doctors to have "admitting privileges," a type of formal affiliation, at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic. Abortion providers say the provision already has forced clinics to close because such an affiliation is hard to obtain.

Data curated by InsideGov

The abortion providers also challenged a provision, not yet in effect, requiring clinics to have hospital-grade facilities with standards for corridor width, plumbing, parking spaces, room size, the spacing of beds and many other attributes.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito indicated support for the regulations and referred to evidence that abortion facilities in Texas "have been cited for really appalling violations when they were inspected: holes in the floor where rats could come in, the lack of any equipment to adequately sterilize instruments."

The Supreme Court's last major abortion ruling came in 2007 when it upheld a federal law banning a late-term abortion procedure.

The Supreme Court legalized abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. But abortion remains a disputed issue in the United States, as it does in many countries, and some states have passed laws aiming to place a variety of restrictions on a woman's ability to terminate a pregnancy.

The court is considering the Texas case in the midst of the heated campaign ahead of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic and Clarece Polke; Editing by Will Dunham)

Data curated by InsideGov

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