Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Challenges to Abortion-Procedure Ban Begin

As expected - Abortion-rights proponents launched challenges in three courtrooms across the country Monday to the first federal ban on an abortion procedure since a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy was established by Roe v. Wade more than three decades ago.

At issue is an act signed into law by President Bush last year that outlaws a procedure described by opponents as "partial-birth abortion," and by most doctors as "intact dilation and extraction."

The plaintiffs, including Planned Parenthood, the Federation of America, National Abortion Federation, Center for Reproductive Rights and doctors from Nebraska, New York, Virginia and Iowa, contend that the law is unconstitutional because it contains the same deficiencies as one overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.

Like that law, they argued Monday, it provides no exceptions for the health of the mother and is so "hopelessly unclear" that it could outlaw more common procedures performed as early as 13 weeks gestation and thereby place an undue burden on a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion.

"Congress could easily have much more precisely defined what it sought to ban," A. Stephen Hut Jr. said in opening statements before the packed courtroom of U.S. District Judge Richard Conway Casey in New York.

The U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in 2000 to strike down a similar Nebraska law. In Stenberg vs. Carhart, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that any such law would create an undue burden on a woman's right to choose an abortion unless it created an exception for the mother's health and more narrowly defined the banned procedure.

Attorney General John Ashcroft stirred controversy recently when he issued subpoenas to hospitals and clinics across the country for abortion records, arguing that they are necessary to determine whether the procedures were medically necessary. But the subpoenas have been decried by the facilities and abortion-rights proponents as an intimidation tactic and an unjustifiable invasion of the privacy of patients.

Although several judges, including U.S. District Judge Richard Conway Casey in New York, have ordered the documents released, others, including U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in San Francisco, denied the requests. A federal appeals court Monday temporarily stayed Casey's ruling that New York Presbyterian Hospital turn over the records.

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