updated 3/28/2005 11:10:11 AM ET 2005-03-28T16:10:11

The Supreme Court rejected an appeal Monday to reinstate a state law requiring girls under age 18 to get parental consent for abortions except under the most dire of medical emergencies.

Without comment, justices let stand a lower court ruling that struck down the Idaho law because its provisions on emergency abortions were too strict.

The Supreme Court in its landmark 1973 case, Roe v. Wade, ruled that a woman has a constitutional right to abortion before the fetus is viable and to terminate her pregnancy if it poses a risk to her health.

At issue was whether the Idaho law was unduly burdensome on young mothers by limiting abortions without consent to “sudden and unexpected” instances of physical complications.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said yes, saying there was no reasonable explanation for the restriction. Other emergency medical procedures are allowed on minors without parental permission that do not fit the “sudden and unexpected” category, it said.

The court said the rest of the law could not be salvaged because the emergency provisions were too important.

Looming battle
The justices’ move Monday sidesteps a highly charged issue amid continuing speculation about a looming vacancy on the high court. At least three justices have said they believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and liberal groups have vowed to fight any judicial nominee that opposes the landmark ruling.

The last major abortion decision by the Supreme Court came in 2000, when the court ruled 5-4 to strike down Nebraska’s ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortion because it failed to provide an exception to protect the mother’s health.

The Idaho law had been challenged by Planned Parenthood of Idaho and one of the four Idaho doctors who performs abortions.

Other states also provide for parental consent for abortions in many situations, but Idaho’s is considered more stringent than most.

In 2001, there were 738 abortions performed in the state, a drop from 1980, when 2,553 were performed, according to state statistics.

The case is Wasden v. Planned Parenthood of Idaho, 04-703.

Media protection
In another ruling, the justices declined to consider whether journalists have constitutional protections allowing them to safely report defamatory comments made by public figures, so long as the comments are described in a neutral way.

Without comment, justices let stand a state court ruling in favor of two Parkesburg, Pa., officials who sued over a 1995 article in the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa. As a result, journalists publishing in Pennsylvania will need to scrutinize public statements more closely for truth or face potential liability.

The article described borough Councilman William T. Glenn Sr. as “strongly implying” council president James B. Norton III and Mayor Alan M. Wolfe to be “queers and child molesters,” according to the state ruling. The article described Norton and Wolfe as denying the charges and calling the comments “bizarre” and “sad.”

A jury ordered Glenn to pay the two men $17,500 in damages for defamation but found that reporter Tom Kennedy, then-editor William Caufield and newspaper owner Troy Publishing Co. were not liable, partly because of the trial judge’s instruction on the so-called neutral reportage privilege.

That privilege, recognized by some state and federal courts, lets the press convey a reputable public figure’s defamatory comment as long as it is reported neutrally and accurately.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that no such privilege exists under U.S. or Pennsylvania constitutions. It ordered a new trial to decide the journalists’ liability under an “actual malice” standard that asks whether the defamatory statements were published with reckless disregard for the truth.

The appeal by the Pennsylvania newspaper was backed by more than a dozen media organizations and advocates, including The Associated Press, who argued the ruling will unconstitutionally chill news coverage of political campaigns where charges and countercharges are commonplace.

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