Urbanormativity, Spatial Privilege, and Judicial Blind Spots in Abortion Law

Lisa R. Pruitt

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Marta R. Vanegas

Law Offices of John F. Martin, P.C.

October 20, 2014

Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice, 2015, Forthcoming
UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 384

State laws regulating abortion have proliferated dramatically in recent years. Twenty-two states adopted 70 different restrictions in 2013 alone. Between 2011 and 2013, state legislatures passed 205 abortion restrictions, exceeding the 189 enacted during the entire prior decade. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently upheld as constitutional several such restrictions, parts of Texas H.B. 2 (2013), in Planned Parenthood of Texas v. Abbott. That court is currently considering the constitutionality of a similar Mississippi law. These and other recent cases raise issues likely to be heard soon by the U.S. Supreme Court. Among the regulations at stake in Texas H.B. 2 was a requirement that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic. The Texas law also limits the use of medication-induced abortions.

Rarely acknowledged in academic literature or media coverage of these laws and constitutional litigation arising from them is the fact that the greatest impact of these regulations — like that of many other state abortion laws enacted since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey — is on those who live farthest from major metropolitan areas, where abortion providers tend to be located. Indeed, these laws exact the greatest toll on women who are both rural and poor. We argue that, contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Abbott, these laws place undue burdens on the abortion rights of a significant number of women and that they should be declared unconstitutional.

In addition to these doctrinal arguments, we draw on three complementary critical frames — legal geography, the concept of privilege, and rural studies concept of urbanormativity — to articulate new ways of thinking about the recent spate of so-called incremental abortion regulations and federal courts’ adjudication of the constitutionality of these laws. First, legal geography provides a frame for theorizing the relationship between the abortion regulations and rurality, revealing how law’s impact is variegated and variable, dictating different outcomes from place to place because of spatial differences. Second, we deploy the concept of privilege in arguing that many federal judges are spatially privileged but blind to that privilege. In our increasingly metro-centric nation, where rural populations are dwindling and marginalized literally and symbolically, most federal appellate judges appear to have little experience with or understanding of typical socio-spatial features of rurality: transport challenges, a dearth of services, lack of anonymity, and frequently extreme socioeconomic disadvantage. Yet those same spatially privileged judges are applying the undue burden standard to laws that require women to travel hundreds of miles, sometimes on multiple occasions, to access abortion services. Those judges are also typically upholding laws that burden women’s access to medication-induced abortions, which have the potential to ameliorate rural women’s spatial burdens. This spatial privilege and judges’ obliviousness to it are most evident among U.S. Courts of Appeal judges and Supreme Court justices construing the “undue burden” standard, as evinced most recently in Abbott but also on display in Casey v. Planned Parenthood and in many U.S. Courts of Appeals decisions in Casey’s wake. The spatial privilege phenomenon is closely linked to the third frame: critical rural studies’ concept of urbanormativity. By treating urban life as a benchmark for what is normal and, in Abbott, dismissing as constitutionally insignificant some ten percent of Texas women who live more than 100 miles from an abortion provider, federal appellate judges are increasingly articulating an urbanormative jurisprudence.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 79

Keywords: abortion, undue burden, legal geography, privilege, rural, urban, metropolitan, spatial inequality, critical rural studies, urbanormativity, medication abortion, hospital admitting privileges, TRAP regulations, incremental abortion regulations, gender, reproductive rights

JEL Classification: K10, K30

Accepted Paper Series

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Date posted: June 8, 2014 ; Last revised: December 23, 2014

Suggested Citation

Pruitt, Lisa R. and Vanegas, Marta R., Urbanormativity, Spatial Privilege, and Judicial Blind Spots in Abortion Law (October 20, 2014). Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice, 2015, Forthcoming; UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 384. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2446644

Contact Information

Lisa R. Pruitt (Contact Author)
University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )
Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA 95616-5201
United States

Marta R. Vanegas
Law Offices of John F. Martin, P.C. ( email )
3100 Oak Road
Suite 230
Walnut Creek, CA 94597
United States
925.937.5433 (Phone)
925.938.5567 (Fax)
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