Supreme Court divided in high-stakes Texas abortion case

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

17 PHOTOS
Supreme Court hears Texas abortion case
See Gallery
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)
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)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

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

More on AOL.com:
Huge quake strikes off Indonesia but tsunami warnings canceled
Google search for 'How to move to Canada' spikes during Super Tuesday
Twitter goes nuts over Chris Christie's reaction to Donald Trump's victory speech

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.