Congressman Steve Chabot was in a House judiciary committee business meeting April 18 when, at exactly 10:15 a.m., he felt a tap on his shoulder. An aide handed him her Blackberry. When Chabot, an Ohio Republican, read the email message waiting on its screen, his face bloomed into a broad grin.
"This is great news! Just great!" he said.
A few minutes later, he interrupted the judiciary committee's regular proceedings to announce the news: The Supreme Court had just upheld the federal Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003, a bill on which Chabot had been the primary House sponsor.
The room erupted into congratulations, said Chabot spokesman George Cecala: "There are a lot of pro-life folks on the judiciary committee who were just elated."
The cases before the high court, Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood, pitted abortionists against the federal government. At issue: the grisly late-term procedure, known as PBA, in which abortionists deliver babies feet-first up to the head, then stab them at the base of the skull and suction out the brains.
Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the federal ban does not pose an undue burden on a woman's right to abortion, and that abortion advocates had "not demonstrated that the act would be unconstitutional in a large fraction of relevant cases."
Legal experts said President Bush's appointment to the bench of John Roberts and Samuel Alito turned the tide in the case.
In 2000 Justice Sandra Day O'Connor joined Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, and David Souter to strike down a Nebraska partial-birth abortion ban in Stenberg v. Carhart. In the Gonzales ruling, Justices Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy joined O'Connor's replacement, Samuel Alito, to uphold the federal ban.
The majority opinion detailed the difference between the two cases. Unlike the Nebraska ban, Kennedy noted, the federal act's narrow language would not affect the widely used "dilation and extraction" abortion procedure in which the baby is dismembered.
That didn't allay the fears of pro-abortion activists who worry that criminalizing one type of abortion will lead to the criminalization of others. Within hours of the ruling, Planned Parenthood staged a rally on the Supreme Court steps, while others decried the decision as "partisan," "frightening," and "dangerous."
"This ban provides no exceptions, even when needed to save the health and life of the mother," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) in a statement.
That's untrue: The 2003 ban does provide an exception to save the mother's life. Meanwhile, Mailee Smith, staff counsel for Americans United for Life, notes that the court did not consider a health exception necessary since alternative abortion procedures are available.
"The ruling indicated that federal courts must from now on give greater deference to state and federal regulation of abortion," Smith said.
The decision was a victory for President Bush, who, when he signed the ban into law in November 2003, vowed that "the executive branch will vigorously defend this law against any who try to overturn it in the courts."
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum called the ensuing fight "a just cause" that finally put the face of the unborn child on the abortion debate.
"With partial-birth abortion, you can't miss the baby," said Santorum, who sponsored the 2003 partial-birth abortion ban in the Senate. "It's not a 'blob of tissue.' It's a little baby with arms and legs and feet and eyes and a nose. Because of the PBA debate, there is now a very cognitive process that people have to go through when analyzing what abortion means to them."