High Court Upholds Curb on Abortion

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Supreme Court broke new ground yesterday in upholding federal restrictions on abortion, with President Bush's two appointees joining a court majority that said Congress was exercising its license to "promote respect for life, including the life of the unborn."

The court's 5 to 4 decision upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act passed by Congress in 2003 marked the first time justices have agreed that a specific abortion procedure could be banned. It was also the first time since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of January 1973 that justices approved an abortion restriction that did not contain an exception for the health of the woman. It does, however, provide an exception to save the woman's life.

"The government may use its voice and its regulatory authority to show its profound respect for the life within the woman," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote. He said the ban on the controversial method for ending a midterm pregnancy is valid because other abortion procedures are still available.

Kennedy was joined by Bush's appointees -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Kennedy announced the decision before a hushed chamber, and while his opinion did not overturn Roe or the court's subsequent decisions, yesterday's ruling marked an unmistakable shift.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg acknowledged as much moments later, when she solemnly read a statement from the bench explaining her dissent.

The majority opinion, she told a stone-silent courtroom, "cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court -- and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women's lives."

The federal law bans a procedure used in a limited number of midterm abortions, but the court's decision will probably have an immediate effect on U.S. politics and lawmaking.

The 2008 presidential candidates split along party lines in their reaction -- Democrats had angry words for the court and Republicans were generally supportive. Activists on both sides of the issue predicted that the decision will encourage antiabortion state legislatures to pass laws not only adding new restrictions but looking to challenge Roe itself.

Bush said in a statement that the decision "affirms that the Constitution does not stand in the way of the people's representatives enacting laws reflecting the compassion and humanity of America."

He added: "The Supreme Court's decision is an affirmation of the progress we have made over the past six years in protecting human dignity and upholding the sanctity of life."

The decision is especially significant because the court had rejected in 2000 a Nebraska law aimed at banning what opponents call "partial birth" abortion, because it lacked an exception for preserving the health of the woman. That five-member majority included all of yesterday's dissenters, plus then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

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