By a 6-3 vote, the court let stand rulings that called the 1995 Ohio law unconstitutional and blocked its enforcement. The law prohibited a procedure called "partial-birth" abortion by its opponents.
The action was not a ruling and therefore set no national precedent, but abortion rights advocates hailed it nevertheless.
"The campaign to pressure Congress and state legislatures to ban abortion procedures has reached a fever pitch," said Planned Parenthood's Roger Evans. "Thankfully, in courtrooms across this nation cooler heads have prevailed."
The impact of the highest court's action appears limited because Ohio's law differs from federal legislation that, although twice vetoed by President Clinton, served as a model for 19 state laws and for legislation passed in Virginia earlier this month.
"Eventually, the Supreme Court will have to clarify the legal status of the living, partially born infants who are killed in these procedures," said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.
In finding fault with the Ohio law, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals split 2-1 last November in saying the law would unduly interfere with a woman's right to abortion.
The law banned "the termination of a human pregnancy by purposely inserting a suction device into the skull of a fetus to remove the brain."
The appeals court said the law's wording would ban a more common procedure used earlier in pregnancies, and noted that the federal legislation, in contrast, does not appear to implicate other methods of abortion.
The 6th Circuit court expressed "no opinion on the constitutionality of this definition or the federal legislation."
Abortion opponents use the term "partial birth" in referring to a procedure involving dilation and extraction, in which a fetus 20 to 24 weeks old is partially delivered through the birth canal. Although a woman's cervix is dilated, the head of the fetus cannot pass through it, so an incision is made in the skull base and the skull is drained.
Disagreeing with Monday's action, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the appeals court ruling in the Ohio case contained "unwarranted extensions" of past Supreme Court rulings on abortion.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia joined Thomas' dissenting opinion. All three had dissented from the court's 1992 ruling that reaffirmed women's constitutional right to abortion.
The 6th Circuit court also struck down two other provisions of the Ohio law, both aimed at restricting abortions after a fetus presumably is viable, or able to survive outside the uterus.
President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress have been locked in battle ovefederal legislation that the House and Senate have approved twice, only to have the president veto it each time, in 1996 and again last October.
In Ohio, the state law was challenged by Dr. Martin Haskell, who performs abortions, and the Women's Medical Professional Corp., which operates clinics in the Cincinnati, Akron and Dayton areas.
Written by Richard Carelli.
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