High Court Strikes Down Penn. Curb on Abortions : Ruling Sides With Rights of Women
In a major blow to anti-abortion groups and the Reagan Administration, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today that a Pennsylvania law controlling abortions is unconstitutional because it tried “to intimidate women into continuing pregnancies.”
In a decision written by Justice Harry Blackmun--who also wrote the court’s Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973--the majority was sharply critical of Pennsylvania officials for infringing on a woman’s right to make a decision that is “hers to make” and bluntly declared that the promise of individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution “extends to women as well as men.”
Blow to Abortion Foes
The court’s decision is a big blow to anti-abortion groups and the Reagan Administration, which had hoped to overturn or erode the Roe vs. Wade decision.
Blackmun was joined by Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell and John Paul Stevens. Dissenting were Chief Justice Warren Burger--who backed the Roe vs. Wade decision--and Justices Byron White, William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor, the only woman to serve on the high court.
White, in dissent, accused the court of displaying “insecurity over its handiwork in Roe vs. Wade and the cases following that decision. . . . I do not share the warped point of view of the majority, nor can I follow the tortuous path the majority treads in proceeding to strike down the statute before us.”
Among other things, the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act required a woman seeking an abortion to wait for 24 hours, to be lectured by her doctor about the medical implications of abortion both for herself and the fetus so she could give “informed consent” to the operation, and ordered criminal penalties against doctors if they failed to try to save an aborted fetus. Also overturned was a provision that all abortions performed after 12 weeks of pregnancy must be done in a hospital.
State Control Sought
Led by Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese, the Justice Department took the unusual step of asking the justices to overturn their past stand in deciding the Pennsylvania case and return the authority to regulate abortion to the states--a step many view as tantamount to banning abortion.
Charles Fried, the solicitor general who argued for the Administration before the Supreme Court, said it is unlikely that the government will intervene in another abortion case soon.
Unless the court makeup changes or “there were other indications in other cases” of shifts in the high court’s sentiments, “it would be slightly futile to come back with the same brief next year or next week,” he said.
Abortion opponents, while disappointed, noted that the high court’s vote has narrowed since the landmark 1973 ruling, which was 7-2.
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who has led the anti-abortion fight in Congress, said, “What all of us in the pro-life movement are hoping is that one of these justices who support abortion will retire.”
While acknowledging the narrowing majority, supporters of abortion rights hailed the ruling.
Women’s Issue Stressed
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said: “I think the decision today means that the Supreme Court, unlike the extreme right wing, feels that women have other purposes on Earth than to just deliver their babies. That’s an important purpose but not the only purpose.”
The view of the abortion question as a women’s rights issue was emphasized by Blackmun.
“Few decisions are more personal and intimate, more properly private, or more basic to individual dignity and autonomy, than a woman’s decision--with the guidance of her physician and within the limits specified in Roe--whether to end her pregnancy. A woman’s right to make that choice freely is fundamental,” he wrote.