WASHINGTON, D.C. (EP) – In a decision widely hailed as a blow to legalized abortion on demand, the Supreme Court ruled that states may sharply limit abortion practices. The 5-4 decision upholding a controversial Missouri abortion law stopped short of overturning the Court’s landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade case which legalized abortion on demand, but left the door open for further abortion restrictions.
The ruling in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services upheld three state restrictions on abortion. The court ruled that states may forbid abortions in public hospitals or other taxpayer supported facilities, may forbid public employees to perform elective abortions, and may require viability tests for fetuses thought to be at least 20 weeks old.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist agreed with a lower court opinion which said testing for viability in second trimester abortions would place an additional financial burden on women seeking abortions.
But Rehnquist said the problem was not with the Missouri law, but with the “viability” standard set forth in Roe v. Wade. “Key elements” of the Roe decision are “not found in the text of the Constitution or in any place else one would expect to find a constitutional principle,” Rehnquist wrote in a stinging criticism of Roe. He added, “We do not see why the state’s interest in protecting potential human life should come into existence only at the point of viability.
Rehnquist suggested that the Court adopt a new standard for evaluating abortion restrictions, focusing on the government’s “interest in protecting potential human life.” Rehnquist noted that there was no need for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, but recommended, “We would modify and narrow Roe and succeeding cases” given the opportunity.
Justice Antonin Scalia filed a separated but concurring opinion, stating there were “not only valid but compelling” reasons to overturn Roe. He chastised the Court for limiting itself to the “most stingy possible holding today” and called the Court’s action an “indecisive decision.”
Scalia further lambasted his colleagues for refusing to reconsider the Roe vs. Wade decision, concluding, “It thus appears that the mansion of constitutionalized abortion law, constructed overnight in Roe vs. Wade, must be disassembled doorjamb by doorjamb, and never entirely brought down, no matter how wrong it may be … We should decide now, and not insist that we be run into a corner before we grudgingly yield up our judgment.”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s views on abortion have been perceived as ambiguous, and her opinion in the Webster case did little to dispel that ambiguity. Her writing lacked some of the sharp criticism she has previously directed at Roe, but repeated her assertion that the Court’s current “trimester framework” is “problematic.”
O’Connor said that the Court was right in not revisiting Roe and said, “When the constitutional invalidity of a state’s abortion statute actually turns on the constitutional validity of Roe vs. Wade, there will be time enough to re-examine Roe. And to do so carefully.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun, who authored the Court’s majority decision in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling, wrote, “I fear for the future. While for today, at least, the law of abortion stands undisturbed, the signs are very evident and very ominous, and a chill wind blows.”
Fearing that the ruling will invite the states to pass restrictive laws against abortion, Blackmun attacked the majority in Webster for cowardice, deception, disingenuousness and brute force. The ruling, he said, “is filled with winks, and nods, and knowing glances to those who would do away with Roe explicitly.”
A separate dissenting opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens concentrated on the Missouri statute’s preamble, which declared that life begins at conception. Stevens argued that the Missouri Legislature’s statement regarding the beginning of life is religious in nature, and therefore violates the First Amendment’s clause forbidding the establishment of religion.
Stevens wrote, “This conclusion does not, and could not, rest on the fact that the statement happens to coincide with the tenants of certain religions … or on the fact that the legislators who voted to enact it may have been motivated by certain religious considerations … Rather it rests on the fact that the preamble, an unequivocal endorsement of a religious tenant of some but by no means all Christian faiths, serves no identifiable secular purpose.”
The Court has three other abortion cases on its agenda for next session, two that involve parental notice when teens seek abortions, and one on a law requiring that abortion clinics be extensively equipped as medical facilities. Those cases are expected to define further the Court’s shifting attitude toward abortion.
Before it would completely overturn Roe vs. Wade, the Court would probably have to be faced with a law completely banning elective abortion – striking at the heart of Roe’s assertion that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy for any reason, at any time.