Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Reshaped high court to decide abortion law

Reshaped high court to decide abortion law
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Tuesday it will rule on whether the federal government can ban some abortion procedures, a case that could show if the high court reshaped by President George W. Bush will restrict abortion rights.

The justices agreed to decide whether the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act that Bush signed into law in 2003 is unconstitutional because it lacks an exception to protect the health of a pregnant woman.

In taking the case, the high court will again be tackling one of the most contentious issues it has faced since its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973 that women have a constitutional right to abortion.

The law represents the first nationwide ban on an abortion procedure since the 1973 ruling. The case has the potential to mark a turning point in abortion law for the court, which struck down a similar Nebraska law by a 5-4 vote in 2000.

The court's action was announced with new Justice Samuel Alito joining Chief Justice John Roberts on the bench of the nine-member court. Abortion was a central issue in the Senate confirmation hearings for Alito and Roberts.

The conservative Alito, Bush's second pick for the high court confirmed in the past year, replaced Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who cast the decisive vote striking down the Nebraska law.

Abortion rights groups expressed concern.

"Today's action means the core principle of protecting women's health as guaranteed by Roe v. Wade is in clear and present danger," said Nancy Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America.


"The Supreme Court's decision to hear this case is a dangerous act of hostility aimed squarely at women's health and safety," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

But supporters of the law welcomed the court's decision.

Citing its new make-up, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said, "We're hopeful the high court will determine that the national ban is not only proper, but constitutional as well."

Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition added, "With two new judicial conservatives on the Supreme Court, this could signal the end of the abortion lobby's stranglehold on the court."

The partial-birth abortion ban has never been enforced because of court challenges and six federal courts have all found it unconstitutional. The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to uphold the law as constitutional.

When it passed the legislation after nine years of debate, the U.S. Congress decided not to include an exception for a woman's health, even though the Supreme Court's ruling on the Nebraska law in 2000 required it.

The law contains an exception when the abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother, but not one to preserve the woman's health. Any physician who knowingly performs the procedure faces up to two years in prison.

The U.S. Justice Department said the phrase "partial-birth abortion" is commonly used to describe a late-term procedure known as "dilation and extraction" or "intact dilation and evacuation."

Opponents of the law said it also would ban a more frequently used abortion procedure known as standard dilation and evacuation. That procedure is the most common one in the second trimester of pregnancy, they said.

Some doctors have described the surgical procedure as the safest method to end a pregnancy because it reduces the risk of bleeding, infection and other health consequences.

Attorneys from the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights said the government was seeking, in effect, to have the Supreme Court overrule its 2000 decision requiring a health exception.

Any weakening of this "would represent a significant retreat from more than three decades of this court's jurisprudence striking down any abortion regulation that failed to protect pregnant women's health," they said.

The case will be argued during the court's upcoming term that begins in October.