Supreme Court Treads in Middle On Abortion

Decision reflects divided public opinion, but left both sides on Casey ruling unhappy

THE Supreme Court abortion decision on June 30 was promptly denounced by the now-familiar voices on either extreme - pro-choice and pro-life.

The court had split the difference. Pennsylvania is free to regulate abortions in many ways, but abortion cannot be banned or the right to obtain one obstructed with "undue" legal burdens.

The decision appears to closely mirror public opinion: The majority of Americans give high importance to both freedom of individual choice and the sanctity of individual life.

This means that if the abortion-rights forces hope to rouse the public to political action against the decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court has not made it easy.

"Public opinion is strongly pro-choice and strongly pro-life," says Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center. "And both are held deeply and in a very powerful way.... In poll after poll, the public says, `Let's have restrictions but not absolute bans.' "

Kathy Romano, a mother of two in North Miami, Fla., says she finds it hard to characterize herself as strongly for or against abortion, but she agrees with most of the Supreme Court's decision. "I personally would never have had one. I'm definitely anti-abortion as a method of birth control," she says. But she adds that "no one has a right to tell you what to do with your body."

"I agree with every single [restriction] the court made," says Carolyn O'Donnell, a Kawasaki marketing executive in Orange County, Calif. "Abortion should be monitored. There are only certain circumstances when I think abortion is O.K., and it should never be a form of birth control."

Lynn McKever, a mother of two toddlers and a former Planned Parenthood volunteer in Flagstaff, Ariz., says the climate over abortion has caused her for the first time to consider casting her vote for president this fall solely on the abortion issue.

A registered Republican, she says she may vote for Bill Clinton this year because of his abortion-rights position, "although he doesn't suit me in other ways."

Don Kellerman, director of the Times-Mirror Center for public- opinion research, estimates that about 20 percent of the voting public on each side of the abortion question views it as a make- or-break issue in voting decisions. For between 60 and 70 percent, abortion is only one issue among many and highly mixed or ambivalent.

"Substantial majorities are pro-choice," says Mr. Kellerman. "But when you probe, you get majorities in favor of some of the very things that are in the Pennsylvania law."

THE court has now drawn some clearer lines about what restrictions to abortion are and are not permitted. In the Pennsylvania case decided June 29, the court approved these requirements:

* Women must be told about fetal development and alternatives to abortion before obtaining one.

* They must wait at least 24 hours after hearing this information before undergoing an abortion.

* Doctors must keep detailed public records of abortions performed, although the identities of abortion patients would be protected.

* Girls under 18 and not self-supporting must obtain permission from a parent or a judge before obtaining an abortion.

The one requirement that the court struck down as too burdensome was that a married woman must inform her husband before obtaining an abortion, unless under threat of violence from him.

In a previous case, the court struck down a law that required girls to notify two parents, without the option of bypassing the parents for a judge.

The majority of the court in the decision also offered a strong reaffirmation of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that barred states from banning abortion.

Abortion-rights advocates maintain that the court has already gutted the Roe v. Wade guarantee of abortion rights by allowing the restrictions.

Abortion opponents despair that the court will never overturn Roe now and allow states to regulate abortion how they choose.

The court was carried by a three-vote bloc consisting of Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, and Anthony Kennedy. Their opinions appear to be sensitive to what they perceive to be the public consensus on abortion. Justice Souter was explicit in his remarks from the bench as the opinion was delivered that overturning Roe would "subvert the court's legitimacy beyond any reasonable question."

The court had four votes ready to sweep Roe away, allowing states to impose any limitation on abortion that had a "rational basis." The surprise was that Justice Kennedy was not in that camp, since he has expressed those views in earlier opinions.

Clearly, laws in Guam, Utah, and Louisiana that ban most abortions and impose criminal penalties on women who obtain them or the doctors who perform them will not survive the standard the Supreme Court has set up.

At the other extreme, legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress that would bar states from imposing almost any restrictions on abortion. If the bill passes, the question of who becomes the next president becomes critical. President Bush has vowed to veto such a bill.

Bill Clinton and Ross Perot have each indicated they would sign it into law.

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