Abortion Harking Back to the Supreme Court

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Midwestern legislators seem to have reached a rough consensus on the touchy topic of so-called partial-birth abortions; some of the nation's courts, however, are more confused. The situation seems likely to mean that, 26 years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the debate will end up back at the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, a Chicago federal appeals court narrowly upheld Wisconsin and Illinois’ bans on partial-birth abortions, also known as intact dilation and evacuation (D&E). The court’s 5-4 decision highlights the unpredictable nature of rulings on this subject; last month another federal appeals court ruled that bans on the same procedure in Nebraska, Iowa and Arkansas were unconstitutional. According to TIME senior reporter Alain Sanders, "The conflicting decisions among the federal courts underscore the likelihood that this case will go before the Supreme Court. This is an issue that cries out for resolution one way or another." The debate will focus on the procedural specifics of D&E abortion and whether or not the prescribed method of delivering and terminating a fetus constitutes infanticide.

As might be expected, antiabortion forces are applauding the Wisconsin-Illinois decision; according to the Associated Press, Susan Armacost of Wisconsin Right to Life calls the ruling "a huge victory for the babies of Wisconsin." And of course, the scene is very different on the pro-choice side of the fence, where they call the ruling an indicator of the "constitutional crisis" surrounding abortion rights. Pro-choice advocates charge that the language in the Wisconsin and Illinois laws is too vague, and could result in infringements on other, less controversial forms of abortion.

Pending future appeals to the decision, doctors in Wisconsin and Illinois have 20 days to eliminate the D&E procedure from their schedules. Punishment for continuing the practice could be harsh: Wisconsin doctors who continue to provide the abortions face life in prison — except in cases where the procedure is necessary to save a woman’s life — and Illinois physicians risk three years in jail, with the same exception.