WASHINGTON, March 2 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments Wednesday in a controversial Texas case regulating abortion clinics, as thousands rallied on the court steps.
The law, known as House Bill 2, was signed into law in Texas in 2013. It requires doctors at abortion facilities to have patient-admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and requires abortion clinics to have building standards equal to those of surgical centers. The expenses involved in complying with the law have forced about half of Texas' 41 abortion clinics to close, with the possible closure of another 10 that are reportedly not in compliance.
This would leave nine abortion clinics in a state with a population of 27 million. Similar laws have been passed in 12 other states, giving the Supreme Court ruling in this case a national scope.
With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, eight members of the court, evenly split between liberals and conservatives, will hear the case, known as Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt. The swing vote could be Justice Anthony Kennedy, regarded as a moderate conservative. A 4-4 deadlock would uphold the Texas law but not set a national precedent.
The oral arguments Wednesday lasted longer than expected, but offered no surprises. The liberal judges asked Texas lawyers why the abortion restrictions were medically justified, with Justice Elena Kagan noting colonoscopies are 15 times more likely to have complications but are not regulated at the same level. She later corrected herself: 28 times more likely.
Opponents of the law say it forces the closure of clinics with little scientific backing to justify the building upgrades.
Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative, pointed out "there's very little specific evidence in the record" that Texas clinics were actually put out of business by the law.
Supporters of each side in the case have expressed their optimism, and each side was represented in large numbers, in rallies outside the court Wednesday. The proponents and opponents were vocal, but largely avoided each other.
A decision is expected from the court in June.