SUPREME COURT WEAKENS ABORTION RIGHTS Justices paves way for restrictions of abortions, but refuses to outlaw them.


WASHINGTON -- In a historic ruling of sweeping social and political significance, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that women still have a constitutional right to abortion -- but not as broad a right as it has been for the past 19 years.

TC ruling that set the stage for a historic new test of the fate of the Roe vs. Wade decision.

The approach the court majority embraced was that advocated for years by Justice O'Connor, and applied by the appeals court in the Pennsylvania case.

Joining with her in full support of that constitutional formula as the law of the land were Justices Kennedy and Souter.

Two other justices who have steadily supported a broader constitutional right to abortion -- Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who wrote the original Roe ruling, and Justice John Paul Stevens -- said again today that they would have gone further than the O'Connor-Kennedy-Souter opinion did. But Mr. Blackmun and Mr. Stevens nevertheless signed onto most of that opinion, apparently to make it a clearcut majority ruling.

Justice Blackmun, who three years ago had voiced deep fear about the future of the Roe decision, praised the O'Connor-Kennedy-Souter opinion as "an act of courage and constitutional principle."

The outcome today appeared to have resulted from a shift in position -- somewhat more favorable to abortion rights -- by Justice Kennedy.

Ther ruling marked the first time that two justices had taken positions on abortion -- Justice Souter, who supported the new decision in full, and Justice Clarence Thomas, who dissented.

Both of them were named to the court by President Bush. The abortion question was a source of major dispute during Senate review of their nominations.

Mr. Thomas made it clear today that he thought the Roe decision should be overruled. Taking that position, too, were the two original dissenters in the Roe case -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Byron R. White. -- and the court's most conservative member, Justice Antonin Scalia.

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