WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court turned aside yesterday the first test case on a new round of laws that are intended to stop abortions from being performed late in pregnancy.
Without comment but over three justices' dissents, the court refused to consider a plea by the state of Ohio -- backed by 16 other states -- to reinstate a 1995 Ohio law that sought to impose a flat ban on abortions after about 22 weeks of pregnancy.
A federal appeals court based in Cincinnati struck down that law in November.
The Ohio law, the appeals court said, would apply not only to late abortions but also to those performed earlier in pregnancy, when women's abortion rights are strongest.
Yesterday's Supreme Court order appeared to have put off a day of constitutional reckoning on laws that target what opponents call "partial-birth abortions." These laws forbid an abortion procedure that is sometimes used when the fetus, old enough to be able to live outside the woman's body, has been partially delivered alive.
Laws against late-term abortions have been gaining ground across the country, in state legislatures and in Congress, though President Clinton has twice vetoed a federal measure against the procedure when it involves a living fetus.
Twenty states have laws similar to the federal version, and Maryland's General Assembly is con- sidering such a measure.
Thirty-eight states, including Maryland, impose some restrictions on late-term abortions.
Ohio's law is somewhat different from the federal proposal and other state laws. While the Ohio law also bans the procedure used to collapse the fetal skull in order to permit the fetus' removal, the ban does not depend upon partial delivery of the fetus before the pregnancy is terminated.
Moreover, the Ohio law is a nearly total ban -- it has only narrow exceptions -- on any abortion performed after the fetus is capable of living on its own.
But the implications of the law for abortion rights were seen as somewhat comparable to those of laws that target the so-called "partial-birth" procedures.
Both sides in the abortion debate had awaited the Supreme Court's reaction to this initial test.
The court gave no reason for refusing to hear the case. But three justices -- one short of the minimum needed to grant review of a case -- dissented.
The dissenters said the court's failure to review the Ohio law "may cast unnecessary doubt on the validity" of laws in 38 states that restrict abortions after fetuses have become viable.
Justice Clarence Thomas spoke for the dissenters, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.
Simon Heller, litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, an abortion rights group, said the court order "should be a wake-up call to state legislators across the nation that the Constitution does not allow them to interfere with women's personal medical decisions."
But the National Right to Life Committee, a group opposed to abortion, said in a statement that, even if the court had agreed to rule on the Ohio law, it would have provided little guidance on laws regarding late-term abortions. Their validity must await later rulings, the committee said.
In another order, the court refused to hear a test of the constitutionality of laws that bar state legislators from ever running for the legislature again after they have served their state-imposed term limits.
A federal appeals court had upheld California's "Proposition 140," enacted by the state's voters in 1990.
That law imposes a three-term, or six-year, limit on members of the lower house of the state legislature, and a two-term, or eight-year, limit on state senators. Once those limits have been reached, the legislator is barred from any further service.
Six states other than California have similar lifetime term-limits laws. Four of those seven have been challenged in lower federal courts, but each measure has been upheld.
The court, in other action yesterday, agreed to decide whether it is unconstitutional for a police officer who has stopped a car or truck for a traffic violation, but who makes no arrest, to search the entire vehicle.
The issue arose in an illegal drug case from Ohio.
Pub Date: 3/24/98