WASHINGTON -- A seemingly last-round attempt to salvage power for the states to make abortion a crime in the late stages of pregnancy failed yesterday as the Supreme Court turned aside a major case from Louisiana.
By declining to hear two appeals, by Louisiana and New Orleans prosecutors, the court cleared its docket for this term of all abortion cases, leaving the issue to state legislatures and Congress for the rest of this year.
In a separate, unanimous decision yesterday, the court ruled that state and local governments are free to guarantee labor peace on their public works projects by signing union-only, no-strike contracts with construction unions.
Nothing in federal labor law bars government, when it is acting as a business contractor on a construction project, from dictating specific terms for all workers, the court declared.
The court's action yesterday on the Louisiana abortion case had been foreshadowed in late November, when the court allowed the nation's toughest anti-abortion law -- Guam's -- to collapse without review. That was taken as a sign that the court would not tolerate states' attempts to make abortion a crime.
Louisiana's 1991 law was not quite as tough as Guam's, but state and local officials in Louisiana sought to put it before the court anyway. It had been ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court in September.
Under the Louisiana law, passed over the governor's veto, abortion would be a crime throughout pregnancy.
Although women could not be prosecuted for having abortions, doctors could be prosecuted and, if convicted, could get up to 10 years in prison "at hard labor" plus fines up to $100,000.
The law made no exceptions for abortions when a pregnancy would pose a grave threat to the woman's health but would allow abortions if a pregnancy were ended "for the express purpose of saving the life of the mother."
In appealing to the Supreme Court, state officials urged the justices, once more, to decide whether Roe vs. Wade was wrong when it created a woman's right to abortion 20 years ago.
Although the court had partly reaffirmed the Roe decision in its most recent major abortion ruling in June, it declined to analyze whether Roe was wrong in the beginning. A majority said it felt bound to keep the core part of abortion rights intact.
As part of that latest ruling, the court did say that states would retain some authority to regulate abortions after a fetus had reached the point of viability -- that is, after the fetus was mature enough (23-plus weeks old) to survive outside the woman's body.
Seeking to build upon that opening, the New Orleans prosecutor, Harry Connick, urged the court to rule that abortion could still be prosecuted as a crime after viability. The court implicitly rejected that plea by turning down the case without comment.