US Abortion Travail Small Step Closer to Resolution

Louisiana's anti-abortion forces hope to win at the Supreme Court level what they lost in a lower federal court: a national policy much stricter than is now in force

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

PRO-choice and anti-abortion activists in Louisiana are looking at US District Judge Adrian Duplantier's recent decision striking down the state's tough abortion law as a sure sign that the matter will only be resolved by the United States Supreme Court."It will, of course, be taken under consideration now by the Supreme Court," said Terri Bartlett, executive director in Louisiana for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "The bill passed by the Louisiana Legislature was practically intended for just that to happen - to challenge Roe v. Wade [the 1973 Supreme Court ruling under which abortions now are performed]; and Duplantier's judgment only furthers that action." In his decision, Judge Duplantier said that "even though the Supreme Court has thus far explicitly refused to overrule Roe, counsel for the defendants urge that I should anticipate that it will now do so." But he added: "The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that I have no such authority" [to rule on the actual merits of the case]. Anti-abortion activists greeted Duplantier's ruling with cheers, noting that it will help to speed up Louisiana's case before the Supreme Court, where it is thought that Roe v. Wade will either be overturned or its scope greatly altered. But pro-choice supporters got something out of the judge's decision: The Louisiana Legislature had set Sept. 6 as the date when its restrictive law was to take effect, but now that date will come and go with no change in the state's abortion practices, because the case i s under litigation.

Two-year battle in state Duplantier's decision is only the latest skirmish in a protracted two-year legal and political battle between pro-choice and anti-abortion forces in Louisiana. Last summer, Gov. Buddy Roemer vetoed two bills outlawing abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's life is in danger. This summer, legislators again drafted and passed a similarly restrictive measure, with Governor Roemer again vetoing the bill. But anti-abortion lawmakers from both legislative houses won enough votes to override Roemer's veto, the only time a Louisiana governor's veto has been overridden in the past 60 years. Just hours after Duplantier's ruling, Louisiana Attorney General William Guste filed notice that he will appeal the decision but asked that the case be put on a "fast track," sending it directly to the Supreme Court for review this fall as a matter of urgent public importance. "Our duty here is to defend any law that's passed by the Legislature," said Steven Watsky, public information officer for the Louisiana attorney general's office. "And the matter is made even more clear by the attorney general's whole-hearted support of any law restricting abortion." Continued Mr. Watsky: "It is the position of this office that the law is defensible and that it is the cleanest type of legislation that could go before the US Supreme Court outlawing abortions." Louisiana's law - which makes any doctor found guilty of performing abortions beyond the allowed exceptions subject to a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and fines of up to $100,000 - comes at the same time that similarly restrictive abortion measures in Guam, Utah, and Pennsylvania are working their way to the US Supreme Court. Mr. Guste, in a courthouse interview with reporters, said he hoped the high court would agree to review Louisiana's law on an emergency basis, even though he acknowledged "it's unusual when they do it, and we know it will be difficult."

Court's makeup cited But Ms. Bartlett of Planned Parenthood said she does not see the emergency in the same light as Guste. "It may be an emergency to the attorney general's political agenda, but this is not exactly what the women of Louisiana would call an emergency. What's really going on is that he wants to get it to the Supreme Court as soon as possible for any reason because he knows this court with its new composition will not be favorably disposed toward abortion rights." Whatever happens at the federal level, both sides in this state agree that Duplantier's decision will probably move the battlefield far away from Louisiana. With his decision, the trial that was scheduled to start next week was shelved. "I have concluded that no facts which could be developed at a trial could change the legal result dictated by Roe v. Wade," Duplantier wrote. Even if Louisiana's law does make it to the Supreme Court, many scholars believe it has too many constitutional flaws to pass muster. "There's no doubt that the current court will act to erode Roe v. Wade eventually," said one official with the Louisiana attorney general's office who asked not to be identified. "But the Louisiana law has too many holes in it; it's not that sound of a bill. More than likely a new abortion law for the land will come from another state case."

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