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Justices Agree to Review Abortion Restrictions : Supreme Court: The July decision might be narrow in scope--or it could overturn right to end a pregnancy.

January 22, 1992|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On the eve of the 19th anniversary of its Roe vs. Wade ruling, the Supreme Court said Tuesday that it would decide whether to further restrict the right of women to choose abortion.

The justices will consider a Pennsylvania law that requires a woman to notify her doctor and her husband, then wait 24 hours, before going ahead with an abortion. Abortion rights groups contend that the law violates the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which established that women have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion.

While the court announced that it would consider the Pennsylvania case, anti-abortion activists sought Tuesday to shut down two abortion clinics in the Washington area. They plan to march to the Supreme Court today to mark the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade ruling.

The justices issued only a brief order agreeing to review the Pennsylvania case. If they uphold the state law this summer, it could be a narrow ruling that permits the restrictions in the Pennsylvania law without ruling squarely on the underlying right to abortion. Or the solidly conservative court could use the case to go even further, possibly even overturning Roe vs. Wade.

"I'm confident they won't explicitly overrule Roe" in the Pennsylvania case, said Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger. "But they could functionally overrule Roe for some women," such as those who live in rural areas and may not be able to travel to a city and wait 24 hours after seeing a doctor.

How the opinion in the Pennsylvania case is written will be all important. Most likely, legal experts said, is that the justices will write a narrow decision that upholds Pennsylvania's restrictions because they do not interfere unduly with a woman's decision to choose abortion.

However, the justices could write an opinion saying that the states have the power to protect "potential human life" and that nothing in the Constitution forbids states from exercising that power. In 1989, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist used such language in upholding a Missouri anti-abortion law, but he spoke for only four members of the court.

The ruling also could propel the volatile abortion issue to the center of the national political debate. Arguments before the court are scheduled for late April, with a decision due by July, just as the Democratic and Republican parties prepare for their nominating conventions.

Under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the Supreme Court has been transformed into a solidly conservative court. Women's rights advocates said that they fear the court will revoke a constitutional right granted by an earlier court.

In the 1973 ruling, the justices said that the Constitution gives pregnant women the right to choose abortion in consultation with a doctor. States were stripped of any power to regulate abortion, at least until late in pregnancy when a fetus is capable of living outside its mother's womb.

If the justices were to overturn the right to abortion, states would again be free to restrict the practice or ban it entirely.

Even if all provisions of the Pennsylvania law--enacted in 1989--were upheld by the Supreme Court, women still could obtain legal abortions in Pennsylvania. The justices' order Tuesday announced that five provisions of the law would be reviewed. However, if the court decides to uphold all five provisions, it would have to rewrite to some degree the legal standards set in Roe vs. Wade, which described abortion as a "fundamental right."

In an unusual move, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Planned Parenthood Federation who are challenging the Pennsylvania law called a Washington news conference to say that they expect the justices to use the case (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, 91-744) to end abortion rights.

"The court is likely to use this case to abolish fundamental constitutional rights to choose abortion or birth control, rights that millions of American women have relied on for the last 18 years," said ACLU attorney Kathryn Kolbert. The justices "will try hard to obfuscate, but the bottom line is that they will overturn Roe," she added.

However, anti-abortion advocates characterized the Pennsylvania law as a moderate measure that enjoys broad support.

The law "ensures a woman's right to know the facts about the development of unborn children and alternatives to abortion, facts pro-abortion extremists want to deny them," said Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee.

Under the Pennsylvania law, doctors must tell a pregnant woman about the growth of her fetus and inform her of other choices, such as putting her baby up for adoption. Opinion surveys have found that most Americans support rules that tell pregnant women of alternatives and force teen-agers to consult their parents, Franz said. Many surveys also have shown, however, that most Americans oppose laws that prevent women from obtaining abortion.

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