Federal appeals court judges on Thursday challenged Wisconsin to defend its suspended law requiring abortion doctors to have privileges to admit patients to a nearby hospital, in a case that could help propel abortion rights back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. District Judge William Conley in March blocked the Wisconsin law that requires doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital located within 30 miles (50 km) of his or her practice. Conley ruled the health benefits, if any, of the law were outweighed by the burden on women's health due to restricted access to abortions.
The Attorney General of Wisconsin appealed Conley's decision to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-member panel made up of Judge Richard Posner, Judge David Hamilton and Judge Daniel Manion heard oral arguments from lawyers for the state and for the state's two abortion providers.
Posner and Hamilton both aggressively challenged the lawyer for the state of Wisconsin.
"There is no rational basis for your statute because it doesn't provide health benefits for women who have complications from abortions," Posner said during the oral arguments.
After the hearing, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel told reporters the Supreme Court could end up hearing the case.
"If the court here strikes down Wisconsin's statute, there would be a split between the 5th Circuit and the 7th Circuit, which could prompt the Supreme Court to take the case up. There's an expectation that the U.S. Supreme Court at some point is going to take on this issue," he told reporters.
He also did not rule out Wisconsin lawmakers rewriting the statute.
Schimel noted that the nature of judges' questions during oral arguments is not a good predictor of their eventual ruling.
The 5th Circuit in June upheld a Texas requirement that doctors performing abortions obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of a clinic. That ruling has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has allowed some state restrictions on abortions, allowing states to mandate parental consent for minors, for example. But the top court has said states cannot impose an "undue burden" on the right to end a pregnancy.
It could take weeks or months for the appeals court to rule in the Wisconsin case.