Friday, August 18, 2000

Judge temporarily blocks abortion law

Statute punishes doctors who perform 'partial birth' procedure

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — A federal judge moved Thursday to temporarily block a new Ohio law that punishes doctors who perform a late-term abortion procedure.

        U.S. District Judge Walter Rice's 10-day restraining order took effect at 12:01 a.m. and could be extended while a legal challenge is fought in his court. Though Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery promises a strong defense, the judge's decision to suspend the law sends a signal he may declare it unconstitutional.

        If so, it would be the second time a federal court has cast out an Ohio law banning an abortion procedure done in the final three months of pregnancy, in which a doctor drains the skull of a fetus before it is fully delivered. Called dilation and extraction by doctors, opponents often refer to it as partial-birth abortion.

        Gov. Bob Taft signed a bill in May that declared partial-birth feticide a crime, with penalties of up to eight years in prison and a maximum fine of $15,000. Dr. Martin Haskell, owner of a corporation that operates abortion clinics in Cincinnati, Dayton and Akron, filed a suit challenging the law in July.

        Alphonse Gerhardstein, Dr. Haskell's attorney, said the law goes too far. He said it forces a woman to continue her pregnancy in situations where there are fetal anomalies and in cases of rape or incest.

        “A mother ought to have that choice,” Mr. Gerhardstein said. “But this bill just ignores all that and assumes legislators know best.”

        Todd Boyer, a spokesman for the attorney general, said Ms. Montgomery worked with legislators and with Mr. Taft to pass a law that would satisfy state and federal courts.

        He said Ohio's law is better than a Nebraska statute the U.S. Supreme Court re cently declared unconstitutional, because it allows dilation and extraction in cases where a mother's life is threatened.

        Ohio Department of Health statistics show dilation and extraction was performed in fewer than 1 percent of abortions in 1999.

        Of the 37,041 abortions in Ohio last year, 328 were done by dilation and extraction.

        Mr. Gerhardstein said he will ask Judge Rice to extend his restraining order another 10 days on Aug. 28. The state and Dr. Haskell will return to federal court for a Sept. 5 hearing, at which Judge Rice can consider another extension.


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