Ever since the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling in 1973, graphic descriptions of the procedure have been staples of abortion opponents. Abortion rights advocates have preferred more scientific terms. Neither is by accident.
The Supreme Court adopted the more graphic approach Wednesday as a conservative majority of justices upheld a nationwide ban on a controversial abortion procedure.
"The way in which the fetus will be killed ... is of legitimate concern" to the government, the majority said.
In opinions after Roe v. Wade, the decision saying a woman has a constitutional right to abortion, clinical terminology has been the order of the day at the court.
All that changed in 2000, when Justice Anthony Kennedy described abortion procedures in painstaking detail. He did so as a dissenter in Stenberg v. Carhart, the ruling striking down Nebraska's ban on what opponents call partial-birth abortions.
"Repeated references to sources understandable only to a trained physician may obscure matters for persons not trained in medical terminology," Kennedy wrote in 2000. "Thus it seems necessary at the outset to set forth what may happen during an abortion."
Kennedy then explained abortion procedures in explicit terms that had not been seen previously at the court. The break with tradition prompted Justice John Paul Stevens to note in a concurring opinion, "Much ink is spilled today describing the gruesome nature of late-term abortion procedures."
Kennedy returned to form Wednesday when he wrote the decision of the court.
"It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns ... what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast-developing brain of her unborn child," Kennedy wrote.
In the decision, Kennedy virtually invited states to have women seeking abortions learn more about "the way in which the fetus will be killed," reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews. Anti-abortion rights groups — which believe more graphic information will discourage abortion — hailed that part of the ruling.
"Telling the states that they have a legitimate interest in making sure these women also know what they're engaging in, what's at stake, is going to have just huge ramifications," says Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which litigates anti-abortion rights issues.
In a forceful dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested that Kennedy's word choice goes too far.
"Throughout, the opinion refers to obstetrician-gynecologists and surgeons who perform abortions not by the titles of their medical specialties, but by the pejorative label 'abortion doctor,'" wrote Ginsburg. "A fetus is described as an 'unborn child,' and as a 'baby;' second-trimester, previability abortions are referred to as 'late-term.'"
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