HONOLULU — A federal appeals court heard arguments Monday on Guam's sweeping abortion ban in a case that could threaten the Supreme Court's landmark ruling legalizing abortion.
The Guam statute is the first anti-abortion law containing criminal penalties argued at the federal appellate court level since 1973, the year the Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade. It is one of the fastest-moving abortion cases in the pipeline toward the nation's highest court, which now has a large conservative majority.
Guam's law, among the nation's most restrictive, prohibits all abortions except those to terminate pregnancies that would endanger a woman's life or "gravely impair" her health. A U.S. District Court judge struck it down last year as unconstitutional, and Guam Gov. Joseph Ada is appealing the decision.
Attorney Paul Linton, arguing for Ada before three judges of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, contended that "a majority of the Supreme Court now recognizes there is a compelling interest in the protection of unborn human life throughout pregnancy."
But attorney Anita Arriola, representing several plaintiffs, argued that Roe vs. Wade "remains the law of the land" and that Guam's abortion ban violates constitutional rights to privacy, freedom of speech and religion.
In a vivid illustration of the divisions sparked by the abortion controversy, Arriola was arguing to nullify a statute that was written by her mother, Sen. Elizabeth Arriola of Guam. The bill was passed unanimously by the Legislature of that heavily Roman Catholic island in March, 1990, and was in effect four days before an injunction was granted.
Arriola and the American Civil Liberties Union are representing several plaintiffs in the case: the Guam Society of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, the Guam Nurses Assn., an Episcopal priest, a Jewish woman and three physicians who perform abortions. Ada is the sole defendant.
The 9th Circuit is expected to rule in a few months, and an appeal to the Supreme Court could come as early as next spring. The case, known as Guam Society of Obstetricians & Gynecologists vs. Ada, is one of five abortion cases in the federal courts that appear headed to the Supreme Court.