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Prison inmate may have abortion, justices rule

Voting unanimously, the Supreme Court justices on Monday refused to prevent a Missouri prison inmate from getting an abortion.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Supreme Court, in an abortion case of relatively narrow scope, cleared the way Monday for a Missouri prison inmate to terminate her pregnancy.

The high court decision was not a sweeping rendering on the issue of abortion, per se, but rather a holding that Missouri corrections officials must drive the woman to a clinic to have the procedure. It was unclear how soon that would be done.

Late Friday, Justice Clarence Thomas had granted a temporary stay to the state, which prevented the woman from having an abortion on Saturday. But Monday’s high court action was unanimous.

Missouri’s law forbids spending tax dollars to facilitate an abortion, but the federal judge took the position that the prison system in Missouri was blocking her from exercising that right. Thomas’ stay had temporarily blocked the ruling by U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple.

The state attorney general’s office said Monday morning that it just learned of the decision and was informing the Department of Corrections, but had no other comment. Gov. Matt Blunt’s office also had no immediate comment.

The department said it would follow the court’s order that the procedure be allowed but didn’t yet know the practical details of when or how that might occur.

“We’re a law enforcement agency. If we’re compelled by the courts to do something, we’re going to follow the law,” corrections spokesman John Fougere said.

The woman has not been identified. Her attorney, James Felakos of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in court papers that she is running out of time because she is 16 weeks to 17 weeks pregnant, and Missouri bars abortions after 22 weeks.

Battle over transportation costs
She has said she will borrow money for the abortion from friends and family but cannot afford to pay for transportation to a clinic to have it done.

The court fight was over those costs, estimated at $350 plus fuel for two guards to accompany the woman on the 80-mile trip from her cell in Vandalia to a St. Louis clinic.

Under a policy adopted over the summer, Missouri’s prison system does not provide transportation or security for inmates seeking abortions. State officials argued that the policy is reasonable because of the costs and security risks of transporting inmates outside for procedures the officials said are not medically necessary.

In court papers, the woman said she discovered she was pregnant shortly after being arrested in California in July on a Missouri parole violation. She said she tried to get an abortion in California but was transferred back to Missouri before it could be performed.

The Supreme Court’s action came in a brief order and did not address the merits of the case. Justices are hearing arguments later this fall in an abortion case, involving a challenge to a parental notification law.

The case is Crawford v. Roe, 05-A333.