(Adds details of dissent, ruling, reaction)
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, April 18 A closely divided U.S.
Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld for the first time a
nationwide ban on a specific abortion procedure, a ruling
critics denounced as undermining 30 years of precedent
protecting women's health.
By a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled that the Partial-Birth
Abortion Ban Act that President George W. Bush signed into law
in 2003 after its approval by the Republican-led U.S. Congress
does not violate a woman's constitutional right to an
The ruling could open the door to further abortion
restrictions and it came in the first full term of Bush's two
Supreme Court appointees, signaling a possible new direction on
a divisive social issue that could continue long after Bush
The decision by the conservative majority that included
both of Bush's appointees marked the first federal ban on an
abortion procedure to be upheld since the court's landmark Roe
v. Wade ruling in 1973 that women have a basic constitutional
right to abortion.
The majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy
rejected the argument the law must be struck down because it
imposed an undue burden on a woman's right to abortion, that it
was too vague or broad and it failed to provide an exception
for abortions to protect the health of a pregnant woman.
"The government has a legitimate and substantial interest
in preserving and promoting fetal life," Kennedy wrote in the
39-page opinion. He said the law would reduce the number of
The court's four liberals -- Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer --
Ginsburg called the decision alarming and took the rare
step of reading parts of her dissent from the bench.
"The court's opinion tolerates, indeed applauds, federal
intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and
proper in certain cases by the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists," she said.
"For the first time since Roe, the court blesses a
prohibition with no exception protecting a woman's health,"
The upheld law makes it a crime for a doctor to perform an
abortion when the "entire fetal head" or "any part of the fetal
trunk past the navel" is outside the woman's uterus.
Some doctors have described the surgical procedure, which
typically takes place after the first three months of
pregnancy, as the safest method because it reduces the risk of
bleeding, infection and other health consequences. It is known
medically as intact dilation and extraction.
TEST CASES FOR ROBERTS, ALITO
The ruling was widely viewed as the most important of the
court's 2006-07 term. It had been closely watched as tests of
whether Bush's two appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and
Justice Samuel Alito, would restrict abortion rights. Both
voted to uphold the law.
Abortion rights advocates called the decision a stunning
reversal that effectively overturned 30 years of precedent,
while Bush and other supporters of the law hailed the ruling.
"Today's decision affirms that the Constitution does not
stand in the way of the people's representatives enacting laws
reflecting the compassion and humanity of America," Bush said.
Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice
called the ruling "a monumental victory."
Opponents of the law said the ruling cleared the way for
state and federal legislatures to adopt additional bans on
abortions after the first three months of pregnancy.
"It took just a year for this new court to overturn three
decades of established law," Nancy Northup of the Center for
Reproductive Rights said.
"This ruling flies in the face of 30 years of Supreme Court
precedent and the best interest of women's health and safety,"
said Eve Gartner of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The ruling drew immediate reaction from presidential
candidates. Abortion could be an important issue in next year's
"This hard right turn is a stark reminder of why Democrats
cannot afford to lose the 2008 election. Too much is at stake
-- starting with, as the court made all too clear today, a
woman's right to choose," Democrat John Edwards said.
Republican Rudolph Giuliani said, "The Supreme Court
reached the correct conclusion in upholding the congressional
ban on partial birth abortion. I agree with it."