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Judges in N.Y., Calif. block abortion law
( 2003-11-07 11:37) (Agencies)

The legal attack against a new ban on certain late-term abortions rapidly escalated Thursday as federal judges in New York and California blocked the law, delivering a major setback to President Bush only a day after he signed the measure.

The ruling by the San Francisco judge affects doctors who work at 900 Planned Parenthood clinics nationwide. The decision and the ruling in New York hours earlier together cover a majority of the abortion providers in the United States.

And on Wednesday, a federal judge in Nebraska made a similar ruling that covers four abortion doctors licensed in 13 states across the Midwest and East. The ruling came less than an hour after Bush signed the law.

This graphic details the percentage of abortions performed as measured in weekly increments. [AP Graphic]
The rulings prevent enforcement of the ban until a challenge to the law's constitutionality can be heard.

The law outlaws a procedure generally performed in the second or third trimester in which a fetus is partially delivered before being killed, usually by puncturing its skull. Anti-abortion activists call the procedure "partial-birth abortion." President Clinton twice vetoed similar bills.

Opponents of the law said it is overly broad, lacks any exemption for the health of a woman seeking an abortion and could outlaw several safe and common procedures. They also contended it is the first step in a larger campaign to ban all abortions and undo Roe v. Wave, the Supreme Court's 1973 landmark decision establishing a woman's right to an abortion.

Abortion-rights advocates expect a showdown over the new law with the Bush administration at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Justice Department said in a statement that it "will continue to strongly defend the law prohibiting partial birth abortions using every resource necessary."

U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton of San Francisco ruled the law appears unconstitutional because it provides no exemptions for a woman's health. The basis for her ruling essentially mirrors the reasons cited by the other judges.

Hamilton called the new law "an undue burden on a woman's right to choose."

But Justice Department attorney Anthony Coppolino told Hamilton that "Congress' judgment should prevail" and that the law should not be stricken "because you disagree."

In New York, U.S. District Judge Richard Casey granted a request by the National Abortion Federation and seven doctors to prevent enforcement of the ban until a challenge to the law's constitutionality can be heard.

While the ruling applies only to the plaintiffs, it is expected to have broad application: The federation an association of abortion providers in the United States and Canada says that its members perform half of abortions nationwide.

Casey said it is clear that some doctors believe the outlawed procedure is necessary to protect some women's health. He said there is a good chance that those challenging the law will succeed.

Douglas Johnson, a spokesman for the National Right to Life Committee, said the New York judge's ruling was "not surprising but it is distressing."

"It means that partly born babies will continue to die at the point of 7-inch scissors," he said. "Certainly these judicial orders severely impede the government's ability to protect these premature infants."

While the three judges' rulings do not cover every abortion doctor, Planned Parenthood attorney Beth Parker speculated that Attorney General John Ashcroft would wait for the outcome of the suits before enforcing the new law.

"It's hard to imagine the federal government would try to enforce the law against anyone who might be providing abortions but is not a member of the protected group," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Talcott Camp said it "would be quite troubling indeed if the Justice Department attempted to enforce" the ban while the challenges are pending.

"Many physicians were indeed panicked at the prospect of having to face criminal prosecution for providing the absolute best medical care they can," she said.

The law imposes a two-year prison sentence on doctors.

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