The Supreme Court, under pressure from the Reagan administration and antiabortion groups to overturn its 1973 ruling legalizing abortion, heard oral arguments yesterday in two abortion cases but gave no indication that it intends to overturn or alter that ruling.
The cases involve Illinois and Pennsylvania laws that place restrictions on women seeking abortions and impose criminal sanctions on doctors who perform them in certain circumstances. But the justices asked virtually no questions about the laws, focusing instead on technical legal issues.
The Reagan administration intensified interest in the cases in July when it urged the court to use the Illinois and Pennsylvania laws as vehicles to overturn the 1973 ruling. The unusual move heightened speculation that the narrowing court majority favoring a constitutional right to abortion may be shifting.
But the court did not grant the administration's request to participate in the hearing. Furthermore, attorneys who argued yesterday in favor of the state laws emphasized that they were not challenging the validity of the 1973 ruling or a ruling two years ago that struck down similar restrictions on abortions.
Other lawyers familiar with the cases said after the arguments that it is possible the court could dismiss either or both cases on procedural grounds without even discussing the abortion issue.
Pennsylvania Senior Deputy Attorney General Andrew Gordon told the court that under Roe v. Wade -- the 1973 decision legalizing abortion -- and later rulings "there is still a role for states to play" and that Pennsylvania attempted to "strike a balance" between the right to abortion and the protection of the health of the mother and fetal life.
But Kathryn Kolbert, an attorney representing the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said the law's purpose in advising women of alternatives to abortion was to restrict abortions. The law's requirement for detailed reports by doctors, she argued, would increase harassment and the possiblity of violence toward women seeking abortions and toward doctors.
Several justices asked whether they could properly act in the Pennsylvania case, since an appeals court ruling may not have been final and the appeals court may have overstepped its bounds by issuing rulings before the state had a chance to present its arguments.
The justices appeared to see even greater procedural difficulties with the Illinois case, where a federal appeals court struck down a law that requires doctors to inform patients that certain birth control devices cause "fetal death." The law also requires doctors to select the abortion technique that provides a fetus with the greatest chance of survival if there is a "possibility" that a fetus could live outside the womb.
The court agreed to review the appeals court ruling last May in the Illinois case, apparently believing the state was seeking the review. In fact, Illinois officials had decided not to appeal. Illinois has since changed the law, and legal battles are under way in federal court on the new law.
The appeal in this case was filed by a pediatrician who says he objects to abortion on moral grounds and who has a daughter who might be affected by the law. Attorney Dennis J. Horan, who argued for the pediatrician, said those concerns give the doctor legal standing to challenge the law.
But several justices indicated that they believe the pediatrician could not properly defend a state criminal law. The court has often said it cannot rule in cases where there is no controversy between those directly affected by a criminal law -- in this case, Illinois doctors -- and those who enforce the law -- in this case the state of Illinois.
Horan, an attorney working with the antiabortion Americans United for Life Legal Defense Fund, argued that the Illinois law did not conflict with the Roe decision or subsequent rulings and that the law placed no burdens on a woman's right to seek an abortion.