Missouri officials must let a pregnant inmate have an abortion, the Supreme Court said Monday, rejecting an appeal by anti-abortion Gov. Matt Blunt (search).

Missouri, which has some of the strictest abortion laws in the country, argued taxpayers should not have to pick up the tab for transporting the woman to an abortion clinic.

The unanimous order declining to intervene comes as the Senate prepares for the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers (search), during which lawmakers are sure to press her on abortion. She was picked to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search), a key swing voter in abortion cases who is retiring.

"I don't think the justices have ever wanted to have this fight under the bright glare of a political spotlight," said Stephen Wermiel, an American University law professor.

Blunt criticized the court, saying its decision "is highly offensive to traditional Missouri values and is contrary to state law, which prohibits taxpayer dollars from being spent to facilitate abortions."

The Republican governor earlier had denounced what he called "an outrageous order from an activist federal judge" who sided with the inmate. He called a special session this fall to pass new restrictions on abortion and has promised to work with abortion foes on more laws.

The inmate, known only as Jane Roe, is at least four months pregnant and her lawyers told justices that she is anxious and depressed. She found out she was pregnant after being arrested on a parole violation and sued the state after her attempts to get an abortion were rebuffed.

The Supreme Court has never addressed the rights of pregnant inmates to get abortions, but U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple in Missouri said that the high court has made clear that women have a constitutional right to abortion. Whipple ordered the state to transport the woman on the 80-mile trip from her cell in Vandalia to a St. Louis clinic.

The Supreme Court declined to overrule Whipple, following an unusual last minute appeal from Missouri and the temporary intervention of Justice Clarence Thomas (search), who opposes abortion rights.

A stay from Thomas kept the inmate from having the abortion on Saturday. However, on Monday, he joined the other eight justices in rejecting the state's emergency appeal. That suggests that Thomas' stay was only a procedural maneuver to give the full court time to review arguments in the case.

The woman, who is serving a four-year sentence, is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (search), which said in court papers that she is running out of time because she is 16 weeks to 17 weeks pregnant. Missouri bars abortions after 22 weeks.

"Today, they said no more delay. It confirmed that a woman doesn't give up her right to terminate a pregnancy once she walks in a prison," said Talcott Camp, one of the ACLU lawyers.

She has said she will borrow money for the abortion from friends and family but could not afford transportation. The travel costs are estimated at $350 for two guards plus fuel.

Corrections spokesman John Fougere said the woman would likely be transported to the clinic in the next couple of days. He said it was up to the inmate to schedule the appointment, and the corrections department will take her at that time.

"We're a law enforcement agency. If we're compelled by the courts to do something, we're going to follow the law," he said.

The Supreme Court is already hearing an abortion case this fall, and has been asked by the Bush administration to review a second involving a federal ban on a type of late term abortion.

New Chief Justice John Roberts (search) dodged questions about his views on abortion during Senate confirmation hearings, and the subject is already dominating debate about Bush's choice of his close adviser to replace O'Connor.

That backdrop may have influenced some justices, Wermiel said.

"Certainly they're conscious of what Roberts just went through. They're conscious of what Miers is going to face," he said.

No justice dissented from the decision, but Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor, said that may have been because things are in flux at the court following the death in September of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) and the retirement announcement of O'Connor.

"A court that hadn't started the year short of personnel and in the midst of confirmation transition might well have contemplated putting a dissenting marker in place," he said.

The case is Crawford v. Roe, 05-A333.