SAN FRANCISCO — The state Court of Appeal on Monday blocked the Legislature's new curbs on government-funded abortions for low-income women and ordered officials to continue to pay for the operations pending a ruling on the validity of the restrictions.
The action came just hours after a coalition of civil rights and women's groups filed suit asking the court to halt implementation of the new limitations and to declare them unconstitutional as a violation of the right to privacy.
In an order signed by Acting Presiding Appellate Justice Allison Rouse, the court instructed state officials "to refrain from implementing" provisions in the 1987 Budget Act that limit abortion funding until the court rules further in the lawsuit. The restrictions had been due to take effect Aug. 16.
The case is widely expected to wind up before the new and more conservative California Supreme Court in a pivotal test of repeated efforts by the legislators to curb abortion funding.
In what has become an annual legal ritual, such restrictions have been struck down by state courts in each of the past 10 years--and about 80,000 indigent women annually have continued to receive abortions under the Medi-Cal program.
But now there is considerable speculation that the outcome could be different when the issue works its way to the newly recast state Supreme Court.
Last year, now-Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas and Justice Edward A. Panelli, both appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian, dissented from the court's refusal to review an appellate ruling striking down the abortion curbs enacted in 1986.
New Court Lineup
Since then, after the defeat of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices in the fall election, three more Deukmejian appointees--Justices John A. Arguelles, David N. Eagleson and Marcus M. Kaufman--have joined the court.
The realignment places the governor's appointees in the majority and, in the view of legal observers, substantially increases the possibility the court eventually could decide to uphold the restrictions.
The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1980 that under the federal Constitution, states could lawfully impose limits on publicly funded abortions. But the next year, the state Supreme Court held restrictions on abortion violated the California Constitution. So long as the state continued to provide funds for childbirth and related services, it must also supply money for abortions, the justices said.
In the new case, the Legislature, in enacting the $41-billion 1987-88 state budget, barred Medi-Cal abortions--except where a woman's life was in danger, a pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, the unborn child was severely abnormal, or an unmarried female under 18 provided her parents with five-days notice prior to the operation.
Lawyers for the groups that brought suit Monday acknowledged the possibility that the new state Supreme Court may reach a different ruling on the issue when, as expected, the case reaches the justices on appeal. But they refused to concede defeat.
"Judges are not puppets of the governor who appointed them," Margaret C. Crosby, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said at a news conference. "I really feel that when the justices review this issue and look at the law, they will come out our way."
The lawyers said the restrictions would effectively deny public funding to 90% of the pregnant women seeking Medi-Cal abortions. About one-fourth of the females receiving abortions are teen-agers, they said.
The attorneys said that in past years, the annual cost to the state for Medi-Cal abortions has been about $25 million. If the new curbs are upheld, they said, it will cost the state up to $126 million a year to pay for childbearing and related care through the program.
Expanding on an argument made in past cases, the suit says that the Legislature violated a provision of the state Constitution limiting a statute to a "single subject." The annual budget bill must concern only "appropriations," the suit says, and cannot be used to enact substantive legislation, such as the curb on abortion.
The groups also contended that the restrictions invade the right of privacy by limiting the choices of pregnant indigents, and thus substantially affecting their future endeavors.
"The restrictions can affect their choices for a lifetime," said Ralph Santiago Abascal, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance. "It can be the difference between being a welfare recipient or a lawyer."