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Why the Supreme Court's latest move on abortion is so important

The Roe v Wade precedent just faced a major test at the Supreme Court. The unexpected developments offered some important lessons.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on Jan. 28, 2014. (Larry Downing/Pool/Getty)
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on Jan. 28, 2014.

Louisiana passed a law in 2014 that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their practice. The practical effects of the measure were significant: as NBC News reported, the Center for Reproductive Rights concluded that the state law, if implemented, would leave just one New Orleans doctor who could legally perform the procedure.

In a state where 10,000 women seek abortion services every year, Louisiana's measure would severely limit reproductive choices statewide -- which was almost certainly the point of the law.

Local physicians filed suit, making the case that Louisiana's measure was medically unnecessary, at odds with legal precedent, and a thinly veiled effort to close abortion clinics. Late last night, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, agreeing to block the law, at least for now.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked Louisiana from enforcing a law that women's groups said would leave only a single doctor legally allowed to perform abortions in the state.By a 5-4 vote, the court said the restrictions must remain on hold while challengers appeal a lower court decision in favor of the law. Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the court's liberal members.

It's important to note that this was not a ruling on the constitutionality of the state law. Rather, the justices weighed in on whether the Louisiana measure could be implemented while lower courts evaluated the law on its merits.

If the U.S. Supreme Court had gone the other way, and said the Louisiana measure could be enforced immediately, some legal experts have said it would have singled the beginning of the end of the Roe v. Wade precedent.

But in June Medical Services v. Gee, Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer went the other way. The result tells us quite a bit.

First, it's not just John Roberts' court because he's the chief justice; it's also Roberts' court because he's the new swing justice, taking the mantle from Kennedy, who took the mantle from O'Connor.

Second, if Roberts is skeptical of efforts like Louisiana's, the right's crusade against abortion rights is suddenly facing an uncertain future.

Third, this was the first major action on reproductive rights since Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the high court, and as expected, he sided with the right. That's hardly shocking, though it does suggest Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has some explaining to do.

Finally, last night's developments were encouraging for proponents of reproductive rights, but the larger fight is far from over. The decision to block enforcement of the Louisiana law leaves the status quo intact, but the underlying case will continue to work its way through the court system, and it may very well end up again in front of the same justices, who'll be asked to rule on its merits.

Watch this space.