Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Another sneak attack on abortion rights -- but California is fighting back

Here's another small battle in the ongoing war over abortion rights. California has sued the United States in federal court over something called the "Weldon Amendment" – an obscure provision tucked inside a $143 billion funding bill that says federal money can be withheld from any state that "discriminates" against a health care provider for not providing – or at least making referrals for – abortions.

As the suit points out, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion and California law, while it generally upholds the right of health care workers to decline to perform abortions in most situations, requires doctors and hospitals to do them in emergency situations affecting the life or health of a pregnant woman.

The suit seeks a declaration that the Weldon Amendment is unconstitutional. It asks the court to either prohibit its enforcement or rule that California law requiring abortion care in emergency situations does not violate it.

The suit, California v. United States, No. 05-00328, is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

It came to my attention because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit just allowed Catholic hospitals and doctors opposed to abortion to intervene in the case so that they can make their own arguments. The court said the anti-abortion doctors' interests might differ from those of the United States.

The case is moving at a fast clip. The district court has set a case management conference for June 23 and will probably set a hearing date at that point. There is not likely to be a full trial – both sides have presented the facts in briefs and other documents, so they'll probably just present arguments to the judge.

The Ninth Circuit could be right; perhaps it is appropriate to allow participation by doctors opposed to abortion. However, I would hope that the district court would also allow – or even invite – intervention by Planned Parenthood or other organizations that can speak for women who need abortions. While this suit is certainly about the right to emergency abortions, California also sued to protect federal funding for numerous state programs.

The state may consider the right to emergency abortion very important, but it also needs that federal money. Its interests are not the same as those of women who need an emergency abortion. If the anti-abortion crew gets to present its point of view, someone should be speaking up for women.

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