The Supreme Court’s decision upholding the federal ban on partial-birth abortion is a narrow, but important one. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the majority does not change the Court’s basic position with respect to abortion, but it does make clear that the Court’s precedents permit reasonable, careful regulations of abortion in order to promote the state’s valid interest in protecting what Justice Kennedy called the government’s ‘”interest in respect for life.”
The Justices distinguished, but did not overrule, their 2000 decision, Stenberg v. Carhart, which struck down Nebraska’s differently worded partial-birth-abortion ban. Unlike the earlier decision, today’s ruling respects the views of the overwhelming number of Americans — pro-life and pro-choice alike — who concluded that partial-birth-abortion is a procedure that a decent and humane society need not permit. In this sense, the decision is consistent with the view, expressed by Chief Justice Roberts during his confirmation hearings, that federal judges should be restrained, and not take it on themselves to remove controversial debates from pubic discourse.