Saturday, June 10, 2006

Court gives legal victory to abortion foes

Court gives legal victory to abortion foes

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court handed a legal victory on Friday to medical groups working on behalf of health-care providers who refuse to offer abortion services.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals allows private groups of health care providers to partner with the U.S. federal government to defend the federal Weldon Amendment from a lawsuit brought against it by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

The Weldon Amendment, which Lockyer says is unconstitutional, prevents federal, state and local governments from receiving federal funds if they discriminate against health-care providers that refuse to offer abortion services.

The court's decision allows the Alliance for Catholic Health Care and the Medical Groups, which represents health organizations opposed to abortion under nearly all circumstances, to work with the Bush administration to defend the rights of health-care providers opposed to abortion.

California's health code may be construed to require abortions in emergencies to preserve the life or health of a patient, so the state is challenging the Weldon Amendment to prevent the loss of federal funds in those cases.

The panel ruled the two health-care groups should be allowed to intervene in the lawsuit because, if the Weldon Amendment is declared unconstitutional, they may be forced to choose between their beliefs and losing medical licenses.

"Congress passed the Weldon Amendment precisely to keep doctors who have moral qualms about performing abortions from being put to the hard choice of acting in conformity with their beliefs, or risking imprisonment or loss of professional livelihood," Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the panel.

He noted the panel believed California was moving toward such sanctions because state employees were probing complaints about a hospital that will not provide emergency abortions.

"Should California prevail in this lawsuit, it will be free to prosecute health care providers for failure to provide emergency abortion services, however it defines that phrase," Kozinski wrote.

Lawyers for the health-care groups were not available for comment.

"Regardless of who is to intervene in this case, the Weldon Amendment remains an unconstitutional infringement of California's sovereignty as well as a threat to the reproductive health care rights of the state's women," said Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar.