Doctors-only abortion law is upheld by Supreme Court Ruling is likely to apply to use of 'abortion pill', limiting access to it


WASHINGTON -- States may require that only licensed doctors perform abortions, even if that means some women will be unable to end their pregnancies, a divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Without holding a hearing, the court upheld -- by a 6-3 vote -- a Montana doctors-only abortion law.

The ruling is likely to apply to medical as well as to surgical abortions and thus could reduce some women's access to RU-486, the "abortion pill" that is expected to come into use in this country within a few years.

Besides Montana, 40 states -- including Maryland -- require that only licensed physicians perform abortions.

In some of those states, however, the laws have been interpreted broadly, allowing abortions also by physician assistants and medical residents in training at hospitals.

That is not so in Maryland, which has not expanded the definition, according to state medical officials.

In an unsigned opinion, the court interpreted its most significant abortion ruling in recent years -- a 1992 decision in a Pennsylvania case -- as establishing the states' authority to limit the performance of abortions to doctors.

Even if others have the requisite skills to perform abortions, the court said, "our cases reflect the fact that the Constitution gives the states broad latitude to decide that particular functions may be performed only by licensed professionals."

The court said it had been indicating the same thing since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that established the right to abortion, although it had never ruled so specifically.

Joining in the ruling yesterday were the three justices who jointly wrote the 1992 decision that made it easier for states to restrict abortion -- Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and Sandra Day O'Connor. The three others who made up the majority were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven G. Breyer.

That earlier decision said that abortion restrictions would be upheld unless they place an "undue burden" on the right to abortion. That is a more relaxed standard than the strict limit the court imposed in Roe. Until yesterday, the court had not taken an opportunity to apply the more relaxed standard.

The decision was described as "really devastating" by Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, an abortion rights group.

"We never had a trial, we never had a chance to make a full argument, there was no argument in the Supreme Court, yet the three [authors of the 1992 decision] were willing to go along with the opinion," she said.

But Clarke D. Forsythe, president of Americans United for Life, which opposes abortion, said the ruling was "clearly the most significant abortion case" of the court term, because it headed off a nationwide effort to expand abortion procedures beyond licensed doctors.

Had the case gone the other way, Forsythe said, "it would have been revolutionary."

Benshoof and Forsythe did agree on one point: The ruling will likely have as much meaning for RU-486 and another new abortion drug, methatrexate, as for surgical abortion.

In a second abortion case yesterday, the court left intact a federal appeals court ruling that it is unconstitutional for a state to impose a nearly total ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.

The lower court had struck down a Utah law that set 20 weeks at the point at which strict abortion curbs are first applied.

The lower court said that by limiting the right to abort a fetus that could not survive outside the woman's body, the law ran afoul of the standard the Supreme Court created in its 1992 decision.

The court, in another order, agreed yesterday to spell out when a political organization must disclose all its receipts and spending to the federal government. Federal law requires that a "political committee" report its income and expenditures to the Federal Election Commission. But the law does not clearly define such a committee.

A federal appeals court ruled that a lobbying group that also spends money on political campaigns -- the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- is a political committee.

The FEC disagreed with the ruling and took the dispute to the Supreme Court.

A decision is expected next year.

Pub Date: 6/17/97

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