Court blocks 2 state anti-abortion laws; Rare judicial turnabout defers to Supreme Court


WASHINGTON -- In a swift and highly unusual turnabout, a federal appeals court yesterday decided against allowing two Midwestern states to enforce their laws against a late-term abortion procedure.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago acted 24 hours after it had cleared the way for Illinois and Wisconsin to put into effect laws that ban this method of ending pregnancies.

Saying it was acting on its own, the court said it will reconsider a plea by abortion rights groups that the two laws be put on hold until the Supreme Court can rule on their constitutionality.

The appeals court split 5-4 last month in upholding the two state laws. The court divided by the same margin this week in refusing to block enforcement.

The four judges who thought the laws were unconstitutional and also thought they should not now be enforced angrily accused the majority of abdicating the court's responsibility to keep the issue open until the Supreme Court can decide it.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of the specific procedure, which is used mainly in late-term pregnancies when the pregnant woman faces a medical crisis. It involves collapsing the head of the fetus in order to be able to remove it from the woman's body.

The appeals court's turnabout was rare. Courts seldom pull back their orders, and they do so even less often when nothing has changed in the interim.

Another unusual facet of yesterday's action was that the issue of the authority of Illinois and Wisconsin to enforce their laws is pending before a Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens. Typically, if a dispute has reached the Supreme Court, a lower court will take no further action.

Stevens was expected to go ahead and weigh the issue of enforcement despite the appeals court's action putting the laws on hold.

Pub Date: 11/20/99

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