WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court put the future of abortion rights in deep doubt today by agreeing to rule on a new case that challenges its 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade.
Acting on the day before the 19th anniversary of the Roe decision, thecourt said it would review a major new test case from Pennsylvania.
To decide the case, the court may have to make up its mind whether to cast aside all or major parts of Roe vs. Wade. In recent years, it has appeared that Roe no longer has a support of a majority of the justices.
The court's agreement to hear the Pennsylvania case came in a brief order, containing no indication of how the justices would rule.
The order was written in a narrow form, limited to saying that the court would focus on the specific restrictions in the Pennsylvania law.
Five abortion clinics in Pennsylvania and a Pittsburgh doctor asked the court to decide whether Roe remains the law of the land. The court said nothing about that broad question as it agreed to hear that appeal.
tTC It also agreed to hear an appeal by Pennsylvania officials, asking the court to give states "greater latitude" to stop abortions -- and, in particular, to allow states to force pregnant wives to tell their husbands before getting an abortion.
By acting today on those appeals, the court all but assured the nation that it would have a final decision by early in July, thus pressing abortion to the forefront as an issue in the presidential election campaign.
The court is expected to hold a hearing on the new case in April and then take several weeks to prepare a final ruling, which would be issued before the justices recessed for the summer.
If the court were to overturn Roe vs. Wade, it would mark the first time in history that the justices had wiped out a constitutional right that the court itself had established.
A decision to erase the Roe ruling, or even one that stops short of
that but does narrow the right significantly, would shift much of the heated abortion controversy to Congress and the state legislatures, where politicians would have to battle it out.
The court could decide the Pennsylvania case without overturning Roe completely. It could simply redefine the abortion right in a narrower way than it has done before.
Already, abortion rights groups are forecasting a decision that would end, for all practical purposes, a woman's constitutional
right to end
a pregnancy. Those forces are beginning to channel money into this year's election campaigns, to try to persuade voters to elect politicians -- from the White House down -- who would work to restore the abortion right by new federal and state laws.
Congress and the legislatures would remain free to take action to protect abortion as an option.
Anti-abortion forces, however, have vowed to fight as hard to prevent new abortion rights laws as they have fought to get
to pass restrictive new laws with the express aim of forcing the Supreme Court to reconsider the Roe decision.
Pennsylvania was one state that did pass such laws, leading to the test case which the court now will hear. In that case, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled that the Supreme Court already had abandoned at least part of the Roe decision. From that conclusion, the appeals court went on to rule that nearly all of the restrictions in the Pennsylvania law had to be upheld.
In fact, the appeals court struck down only one part of state law: the requirement that pregnant wives notify their husbands before getting an abortion.
Nothing of final significance is expected to occur in the political and legislative arenas until after the Supreme Court makes its new ruling in the Pennsylvania case, perhaps by early summer.
Since the court last decided any major case involving the constitutional right to abortion in 1990, two seats on the bench have new occupants. Justices who strongly supported abortion rights -- William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall -- have retired and have been replaced by conservative Justices David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas.
Neither of the two new justices has had an opportunity, as a judge, to offer specific views for or against a right to abortion. Both refused steadfastly to spell out their views on that issue when their nominations to the court were before the Senate.
Before becoming a federal judge, however, Mr. Thomas had strongly criticized the Roe decision.