Court rulings, Reagan election infuse anti-abortionists with new drive
Anti-abortion and "freedom of choice" activists have escalated their battles in legislative halls and courtrooms across the United States. At issue is not only the oft-argued question of using public funds to terminate unwanted pregnancies of poor women, but effort to prevent, or at least discourage, abortions.
Buoyed by last June's US Supreme Court decision in their favor and the prospects for support from incoming President Ronald Reagan and a more conservative Congress, so-called "pro-life" forces are all the more determined to press their cause.
In a mild reversal of the conservative trend, the post-election session of the outgoing Congress liberalized the language in an appropriations measures affecting federal financing of abortions. The House accepted Senate-approved language permitting funding of pregnancy terminations for women victims of incest or rape, if the victimization is reported within 72 hours.
Meanwhile, proposals to make it a lot harder for women, especially minors, to get an abortion are being readied in at least two dozen states, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
In Michigan, for example, anti-abortionists will try again to put a funding restriction measure on the books similar to one vetoed recently by Gov. william Milliken. Legislative override efforts succeeded in the state Senate but failed narrowly in the House.
New York lawmakers will be pushed anew to tighten the statute permitting medicaid financing of "medically necessary" abortions under which some 60,000 pregnancies a year are ended. "We have one of the most liberal laws in the nation, and, as administered, it amounts to little more than abortion on demand at taxpayers' expense," charges Joan Algaier, legislative director of the state's Right to Life Committee.
While disappointed over the verdict by the nation's highest court in upholding the right of Congress to refuse abortion funding in most instances, leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Planned Parenthood League, and various women's rights groups are not about to give up.
Their prime focus, however, has shifted to the states, 17 of which, along with the District of Columbia, still finance, through medicaid, abortion for the poor.
Involved are state supreme court suits in California, Massachusett, and New Jersey challenging on state constitutional grounds the legality of statutes banning public funding for ending pregnancies, except those resulting from rape or incest or when the woman's life is deemed threatened.
Foes of the Bay State law, which has been stayed pending resolution of the suit, are guardedly optimistic concerning their prospects for success because the "equal protection" provision of the Massachusetts constitution in past past have been found broader than the protective language of the US Constitution.
In addition, the commonwealth, unlike the nation, has an equal rights amendment which those fighting the restrictive statute contend makes it impossible to prohibit a woman from having an abortion simply because she cannot afford to pay for one
If the Massachusetts high court agrees and declares the funding restriction law unconstitutional on those grounds, a move to repeal the ERA seems likely. That process would take at least three years to complete.
Passage of the abortion funding restraints was strongly supported by Roman Catholic clergy throughout the state as well as Gov. Edward J. King and a substantial majority of state lawmakers.
A pastoral letter by Humberto Cardinal Medeiros of the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese last September, a few days before the Massachusetts primary, reminded members of the church of its strong stand against abortion and warned against voting for candidates who advocate "freedom of choice."
Despite this, two liberal Democrats -- US Rep. James Shannon and State Rep. Barney Frank, a congressional candidate in a neighboring district against whom the move was primarily directed -- were elected.
Besides the three states where litigation is pending, 14 others were paying for medicaid abortions as of Nov. 1: Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Goergia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.
The US Supreme Court in its June 30 split decision ruled that states are under no obligation to provide abortion funding for poor women.
This despite the justices 1973 landmark decision that a woman's Cosntitution-guaranteed rights include not having to go forth with an unwanted pregnancy.
Dozens of suits involving anti-abortion regulations or laws in at least 21 states are in various stages of litigation in federal and state courts, including one before the nation's highest tribunal.
The Supreme Court, which two years ago struck down a Massachusetts law mandating parental consent before a minor could have an abortion, is expected to rule by the end of its current session on a Utah measure requiring a doctor to notify the parents of a minor daughter seeking to end her pregnancy.
Similar laws in several other states are already under challenge in lower courts, and the outcomes of those suits hinge on what the nine justices decide in the Utah case.
A federal appeals court in Boston, for example, has under consideration a measure passed last June in Massachusetts that requires an abortion-seeking minor to obtain either parental consent or permission from a judge. This alternative, in the opinion from a backers, has removed whatever objections the Supreme Court had in decreeing the previous law unconstitutional.
The consent meaure, which has to have taken effect in mid-September, has been a least temporarily set aside pending the court's decision on its validity. A similar statute enacted in Louisiana has been temporarily blocked by the court.The suit is scheduled for trial in April. The Massachusetts case was argued in October, but the judges have not yet ruled.
Regardless of which side wins, an appeal to the US Supreme Court seems all but certain.
The Massachusetts "informed consent" statute, as it is called, also requires that any woman seeking an abortion must be provided information concerning the procedures, the risks involved, and alternatives to ending the unwanted pregnancy. In addition there is a 24- hour waiting period required.
Such provisions are in effect in Akron, Ohio, and in all of Tennessee except the city of Nashville.
Waiting periods of 24 hours or 48 hours are on the books in Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maine, but implementation is delayed pending the outcome of court challenges.
Besides the original Massachusetts parental consent measure, anti-abortion statutes in at five states -- Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, and North Dakota -- have been struck down by courts during the past 3 1/2 years.