Supreme Court Decisions Are Shaping Efforts on Greenhouse Gases, Abortion: States Taking Action

By Krisberg, Kim | The Nation's Health, June-July 2007 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Decisions Are Shaping Efforts on Greenhouse Gases, Abortion: States Taking Action


Krisberg, Kim, The Nation's Health


The effects of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings handed down in April are reverberating across the nation, impacting two controversial and hotly debated issues: global warming and abortion.

In a 5-4 decision April 2, the nation's highest court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions--pollutants scientists say are contributing to global warming--under the federal Clean Air Act. The decision ends years of court battles challenging EPA's 2003 decision that the agency lacked the power to set such emission standards. Many environmental advocates are hailing the decision as a major step forward in the cause to curb global warming, and California is taking regulatory actions that have the potential to cause ripple effects in every state in the nation. In mid-May, President Bush announced he was directing EPA and other agencies to take the first steps toward regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

"The implications of this decision are sweeping," said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was a party to the case. "We now have a statute on the books that grants authority to regulate global warming emissions in any sector of the economy. It's a completely groundbreaking ruling and it changes the dynamic not just for the current regulations but for negotiations on Capitol Hill to produce new legislation."

While global warming activists were celebrating, women's health advocates were busy mobilizing after the Supreme Court upheld a federal abortion ban despite lower court rulings that it was unconstitutional because the law includes no exception for the health of the woman. The court decided 5-4 in mid-April that a 2003 federal law criminalizing the so-called "partial-birth" abortion procedure does not violate a woman's constitutional rights. In effect, many advocates say, the ruling gives a green light for even more legislation outlawing other types of abortion procedures. In her dissent, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the court's decision "alarming" in that it "tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists."

Court decision affects reproductive health

Reaction to the abortion ban case, Gonzales v. Carhart, was swift on both sides of the issue. Just one day after the court's ruling, federal lawmakers introduced the Freedom of Choice Act, known as H.R. 1964 in the House and S. 1173 in the Senate, which would codify into federal law the constitutional right to choose an abortion. Reproductive health advocates are also rallying state legislators to introduce and pass similar laws. In late April, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced his intention to enact the Reproductive Health and Privacy Act, which would not only protect access to abortion, but access to contraceptives as well. Seven states currently have laws protecting the rights laid out under Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case legalizing abortion, according to the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

In the past, though, more than 30 states have enacted laws similar to the 2003 federal "partial-birth" abortion ban--laws that had been invalidated by a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case, Stenberg v. Carhart, which found such bans were unconstitutional because they provided no health exception. April's court ruling, however, stands in opposition to the legal precedent set in Stenberg v. Carhart and thus opens the door for state policy-makers to revisit abortion procedure bans or rewrite previous bans to fit within the Supreme Court's current view. According to Americans United for Life, an organization opposed to access to abortion, the recent ruling "opens the door to more aggressive regulation of abortion."

"We do expect to see new restrictions with no health exceptions passed in states," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, which represents 400 facilities throughout the United States and Canada that provide abortion services. …

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