‘PARTIAL-BIRTH’ ABORTION: Supreme Court Stays Bans
U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens issued an emergency stay Tuesday for two Wisconsin and Illinois laws that would ban "partial-birth" abortion, blocking their enforcement until the High Court decides this spring whether to take up the issue. The laws were slated to take effect yesterday, after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals once again refused to "temporarily suspend the statutes pending appeals to the Supreme Court," the Washington Post reports. By a vote of 5-5, the "bitterly divided" appeals court panel upheld its two earlier denials, leading dissenting justices to characterize the decision as a "regrettable [show of] disregard for the importance of the issues." Judge Diane Wood wrote, "We are dealing, after all, with matters of life and death, as they relate to a woman's exercise of a constitutional right the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized" (Biskupic, Washington Post, 12/1). Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle's (R) office did not oppose the decision made by Stevens, who deals with emergency motions from the 7th Circuit. "We thought we could get to the merits quicker, rather than spend time fighting on the stay," Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Susan Ullman said. If the High Court denies review of the laws, the stay will automatically terminate, but both sides "believe Stevens' order was a signal that the Supreme Court will review Wisconsin's or some other state's law" banning partial-birth abortion, especially since two federal appeals courts have issued conflicting rulings on the issue (Stingl, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 12/1).
Reaction to the stay was swift and passionate, as abortion-rights groups lauded the development and abortion foes condemned the ruling. The decision "ensures that the health of women in Wisconsin and Illinois will remain the paramount concern of abortion providers," said Simon Heller, director of litigation at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. Colleen Connell, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, added, "We are relieved Justice Stevens granted the stay. Had the law gone into effect, our clients felt they would've been forced to choose between a very real risk of prosecution and criminal penalties ... and providing their woman patients with optimal care ... an untenable position" (Greenburg, Chicago Tribune, 12/1). Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Gloria Feldt added that she is confident the Supreme Court will "permanent[ly] redress" the case. "Fundamental issues of privacy and individual civil liberties affecting all women are at stake," she said (Planned Parenthood release, 11/30). But Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, decried Stevens' action, saying, "It is regrettable that Justice Stevens has unilaterally blocked enforcement of bans on partial-birth abortions that were democratically enacted by the legislatures of two states and upheld as constitutional by a full federal court of appeals" (Chicago Tribune, 12/1). And Executive Director of Wisconsin Right to Life Barbara Lyons said, "The real losers in this situation are the babies who can continue to be killed in the process of being born." According to Marquette University Professor Christopher Wolfe, "If the [Supreme] Court were to take this and uphold the law, it wouldn't be just a political victory for the pro-life forces. It would also be, in a way, opening up again the question about whether certain kinds of not just regulation, but prohibition, might be possible in the case of abortion" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 11/30).