In a stunning defeat for those who would have government limit a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy, the United States Supreme Court has reaffirmed its 1973 landmark decision legalizing abortion under certain circumstances. This 5-to-4 ruling in a Pennsylvania case, handed down on Wednesday, is seen as an important victory for the concepts of individual privacy and the right to make family decisions with a minimum of governmental interference. It comes just two days after the justices held in the so-called ``Baby Doe'' case that federal authorities may not regulate parents' decisions regarding infants born with severe birth defects.
Like Baby Doe, the abortion ruling is a sharp rebuff to the Reagan administration and the Justice Department. Last summer, Attorney General Edwin Meese III asked the high court to use the Pennsylvania case to overturn its 1973 ruling, which has triggered more than a decade of heated controversy between ``pro choice'' abortion advocates and right-to-life groups that would ban it outright.
Also, on a broader base, some legal experts see the majority's ruling in this case as a setback to Mr. Meese and others who, of late, have strongly advocated a judicial theory that would allow states to make their own determinations in social and civil rights matters such as abortion and affirmative action, even in the face of opposing federal constitutional mandates.
Under the present theory of ``incorporation,'' states may exceed federal civil rights standards but may not fall below them. In the Pennsylvania case, the high court bolstered this concept.
Writing for the court's majority, Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun struck a clear chord for individual discretion in personal and intimate matters.
``A woman's right to make that choice freely is fundamental'' Justice Blackmun said.
``States are not free, under the guise of protecting maternal health or potential life, to intimidate women into continuing pregnancies,'' he added.
Blackmun -- the author of the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision -- further indicated that the Pennsylvania regulations ``wholly subordinate constitutional privacy interests and concerns with maternal health in an effort to deter a woman from making a decision that, with her physician, is hers to make.''
The justice was joined in his opinion by fellow Associate Justices William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, and John Paul Stevens. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger dissented, along with Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, and Byron R. White.
Mr. Burger had supported Roe v. Wade 13 years ago. But now, in dissent, he said it needs to be ``reexamined.'' Mrs. O'Connor was not a member of the court in 1973. But she has since criticized the previous high-court ruling, holding that states should be able to exercise their own prerogatives in such matters.
Justice White accused the court's majority of ``indiscriminately'' striking down state regulations ``that in no way contravene the right'' recognized in Roe v. Wade.
The issue of abortion has had a stormy political as well as judicial history. It has sparked emotional rhetoric as well as sporadic violence in the form of bombings of abortion clinics. Religious groups, including fundamentalist Protestants and the US Catholic Conference, supported the now stricken Pennsylvania regulations. Opposition came from the American Medical Association, Planned Parenthood, the National Association for Women, and other women's rights organizations.
Among other things, the Pennsylvania provisions had required that medical doctors obtain the ``informed consent'' of women seeking abortions after telling them about possible ``detrimental physical and psychological effects'' of such an operation. The state law also required that the public record contain a report of each abortion performed.
These planks were declared unconstitutional by the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals. The US Supreme Court upheld this appellate opinion.
Taking note of the bitter national debate over abortion, Justice Blackmun said that the issue ``raises moral and spiritual questions over which honorable persons can disagree sincerely and profoundly.''
``But those disagreements . . . do not now relieve us of our duty to apply the Constitution faithfully,'' he concluded. In the light of the narrow 5-to-4 decision and the inevitability of changes in the court's makeup, future cases could well be decided differently.