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Abortion Battle Floods High Court With Briefs

September 05, 1985|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The justices of the Supreme Court, who do not reconvene until Oct. 7, already have received an abundance of advice on how to deal with one of the most controversial issues on their 1985-86 calendar: abortion.

By Wednesday, 19 "friend of the court" briefs--an unusually high number--had been filed in the two cases to be heard next term in which the justices have been asked by the Reagan Administration to overturn Roe vs. Wade, their landmark 1973 ruling making abortion legal.

Briefs have been submitted on behalf of scores of members of Congress and several women's, medical and religious groups, as well as the so-called "pro-choice" and "pro-life" organizations at the center of the abortion debate.

Among the latest was a brief filed by 81 members of Congress, whose spokesmen Tuesday urged the court to reject the Administration's plea and to reaffirm the 12-year-old ruling. Reversing the decision, they warned, not only would dissolve a woman's right to abortion but would undermine more than 60 years of legal precedents protecting privacy and personal liberty in deciding whether to marry, when to have children and how to educate them.

"If the government has its way, no bedroom in this country is safe, no woman's body is safe," Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe, the attorney who wrote the brief for the group, said at a news conference.

Variety of Rulings

The brief, filed on behalf of 68 House members and 13 senators led by California Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) and Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), said that overturning the Roe decision would "cast into grave doubt" a variety of rulings dating from 1923 that invoked parental and family autonomy and provided the legal foundation for Roe vs. Wade because, if the high court were willing to reverse the Roe decision it might be willing to reverse the others.

Among these rulings, it said, were key decisions in which the court struck down state laws that had barred interracial marriage and forbidden anyone, including married couples, to use contraceptives.

Edwards called the Administration's intervention in the abortion cases "virtually unprecedented," saying he was aware of no other instance in which the Justice Department "has argued for the termination of a fundamental liberty guaranteed by the Constitution."

Earlier, another bipartisan group of 82 members of Congress led by Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N. H.), had joined the Administration in asking the court to overturn the 1973 decision. The framers of the Constitution had no intention of creating a right to abortion, the group argued. And it was unlikely, it said, that the justices realized when they issued their ruling that abortions eventually would be occurring on a "massive scale"--currently, about 1.6 million annually.

Court Overruled Itself

This group noted that, although it is unusual for the court to overrule itself on a major issue, it had been done in the past. It cited the court's 1954 ruling that struck down racially segregated schools and at the same time overturned a 58-year-old court doctrine approving "separate but equal" facilities.

Now at issue before the court is the validity of laws in Pennsylvania and Illinois that sought to impose a wide range of restrictions on abortion--including requirements that women considering the procedure be advised of its potential adverse effects and that doctors performing abortions use methods likely to save a potentially viable fetus.

Both laws were substantially invalidated by federal appeals courts as unfairly impeding the right to abortion.

In July, lawyers for the Justice Department filed a "friend of the court" brief, urging the justices to use the two cases as a legal vehicle for reversing Roe vs. Wade--a decision the Administration said had proved "flawed" and "inherently unworkable."

Since then, several groups, including the National Abortion Rights League, the National Organization for Women and the American Psychological Assn., have filed briefs defending the 1973 ruling and the appellate rulings invalidating the Pennsylvania and Illinois laws. The National Right to Life Committee, the U.S. Catholic Conference and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights have been among those supporting provisions of the two state laws.

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