WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court handed a victory to the Bush administration and abortion opponents on Wednesday with its decision to uphold a 2003 federal law that bans partial birth abortions.
The decision enforces the law that prohibits the procedure of partially extracting a fetus 20 weeks or older intact from a woman's uterus and then crushing or cutting its skull before it is fully delivered.
"This is the most significant upholding of any restriction on abortion ever by the Supreme Court," said Stephen Wermiel, who teaches constitutional law at American University.
President Bush's appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito gave the bench a more conservative leaning and helped push through the 5-4 ruling on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, law experts say. Roberts and Alito sided with the majority opinion.
The ruling could also ignite abortion opponents to push for more. States now might feel they have a positive reception by the Supreme Court to ban or restrict other abortion procedures since Wednesday's decision signals a possible shift in the direction of the court on the issue, said Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and an expert on the Supreme Court.
"It indicates that the new conservative members of the court have had their influence and it will stimulate states to feel that they have a favorable ear on the Supreme Court if they want to regulate abortions more and ban certain kinds of abortions," Rothstein said.
"It will encourage states to attempt to regulate or ban [abortion] and test out the Supreme Court to see how far it is willing to go," he added.
Twenty-six states have bans on partial birth abortions that apply throughout pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The court's decision to uphold the federal law creates a nationwide ban.
"This basically makes it a federal crime, effective immediately," Wermiel said.
The president hailed the decision in a statement released shortly after the ruling.
"The Supreme Court's decision is an affirmation of the progress we have made in the past six years in protecting human dignity and upholding the sanctity of life," Bush said. "We will continue to work for the day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law."
Wednesday's decision not only affects the abortion debate, it also demonstrates the importance of the president's ability to appoint justices to the Supreme Court, said Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and a FOX News political contributor.
"I think politically, this reminds everyone of how important Supreme Court appointments are. The next president, of course, will have one or two almost certainly," Kristol said.
Out on the campaign trail, a few Republican 2008 White House hopefuls were quick to declare their support for the court's decision.
"Today, our nation's highest court reaffirmed the value of life in America by upholding a ban on a practice that offends basic human decency. This decision represents a step forward in protecting the weakest and most innocent among us," former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney said in a statement.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also said he agreed with the decision.
But abortion rights supporters did not see the decision as a victory.
"I am extremely concerned that this ruling will embolden state legislatures to enact further measures to restrict a woman's right to choose, and that the conservative Supreme Court justices will look for other opportunities to erode Roe v. Wade, which is established federal law and a matter of equal rights for women,” said 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.
"Today's partisan decision by the Supreme Court is a frightening and dangerous step towards criminalizing the very constitutional freedoms that previous courts have upheld for generations," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., in a statement. "This ban provides no exceptions, even when needed to save the health and life of the mother, and flies in the face of medical science."
The decision does not reflect the best interest of a woman's health and safety, said Planned Parenthood Federation of America Deputy Director of Litigation and Law Eve Gartner.
"Today the court took away an important option for doctors who seek to provide the best and safest care to their patients. This ruling tells women that politicians, not doctors, will make their health care decisions for them," Gartner said in a statement.
"Today's decision is alarming," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the court's dissenting opinion.
There could be future lawsuits from claims that the federal law interferes with their right to choose an abortion, Wermiel said.
"The court is saying there is nothing wrong with this law as a general matter. If it interferes, [plaintiffs] can bring a lawsuit somewhere down the road," he said.
Wermiel added that the ruling also demonstrates the strict constructionist outlook of the court's newest leader.
"I think it's [Roberts'] way of narrowing the role of the court. The court ought to be issuing more limited decisions when the court is considering the validity of legislation," Wermiel said.
This decision marks the first time for the court to ban a specific procedure in abortion, which Bush said in 2003 causes a "violent end" to life.
"For years, a terrible form of violence has been directed against children who are inches from birth, while the law looked the other way. Today, at last, the American people and our government have confronted the violence and come to the defense of the innocent child," Bush said at the bill's signing.
The cases are Gonzales v. Carhart, 05-380, and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood, 05-1382.