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Supreme Court decision disappoints abortion foes

The justices turn down Oklahoma's appeal to revive a law requiring a doctor to show a woman ultrasound images of the fetus before performing an abortion.

By David G. Savage

7:53 PM PST, November 12, 2013

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WASHINGTON — For the second week in a row, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that strikes down a major abortion regulation from Oklahoma, disappointing abortion foes who had hoped conservative justices would impose new limits on a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.

The justices Tuesday turned down Oklahoma's appeal seeking to revive a law that would have required pregnant women to undergo an ultrasound and hear about the fetus' size and possible heartbeat.

Last week, the court dismissed the state's appeal of a second law that would have prohibited doctors from prescribing a combination of two drugs commonly used to induce abortion in the early weeks of pregnancy.

Although the justices made no comment on either appeal, the pair of decisions suggests they are not anxious to revisit the abortion controversy in cases that severely limit availability of the procedure or mandate overly invasive measures.

Two other abortion cases are pending. The Planned Parenthood Federation has asked the justices to block a Texas law that could force one-third of the state's abortion clinics to stop performing the procedure. The court is likely to act on that request within days.

And Arizona has appealed a ruling that struck down a new 20-week limit on legal abortions. The Roe vs. Wade ruling has been understood to make abortion legal through 24 weeks of pregnancy. Besides Arizona, 11 other states have adopted the 20-week limit, so the justices may feel obliged to take up that issue early next year.

Lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represented the Oklahoma doctor who challenged the ultrasound law, called the state's measure extreme and demeaning to women.

"It compels women to undergo an invasive medical examination and listen to a state-scripted narrative," wrote Stephanie Toti, a lawyer for the center, in urging the court to reject the appeal. Among the four states with a mandatory ultrasound law, only Oklahoma requires use of a vaginal probe, she argued.

The law said that one hour prior to an abortion, a doctor must perform an ultrasound test, using either a vaginal or an abdominal device, "whichever would display an embryo or fetus more clearly." Foes of the law argue that language would require the vaginal probe. The doctor was required to display the ultrasound images so the pregnant patient could view them, as well as describe the dimension of the fetus, any cardiac activity and the presence of internal organs.

Last year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the law on the grounds it put an undue burden on a woman's right to abortion.

State Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and said lawmakers wanted to be sure women were "fully informed" before they opted to go ahead with an abortion. He also noted that a similar Texas law had been upheld by a federal appeals court.

The justices had held the appeal since late June, but announced Tuesday that they would not hear the case of Pruitt vs. Nova Health Systems.

"This decision is another victory for women and reproductive healthcare providers and another clear message to lawmakers across the U.S. that attacks on women's health, rights and dignity are patently unconstitutional and will not be allowed to stand," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Pruitt said he was "disappointed in the court's decision not to review the case, particularly given that Texas' similar ultrasound law was upheld by the [U.S.] 5th Circuit Court of Appeals."

david.savage@latimes.com