In a move destined to heighten the visibility of the issue in a presidential election year, the U.S. Supreme Court announced on January 14 that it will consider the constitutionality of state bans on so-called partial-birth abortion. The Court will review a lower court decision that struck down Nebraska's "partial-birth" abortion ban. In September 1999, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit overturned the Nebraska statute, along with statutes enacted in Arkansas and Iowa, on the grounds that the bans were so broadly written as to prohibit several common abortion procedures that are used even early in pregnancy. A month later, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit came to the opposite conclusion and upheld "partial-birth" abortion bans enacted in Illinois and Wisconsin—which likely served as an incentive for the Supreme Court to take up the controversial issue at this time. In agreeing to hear the Nebraska case, the justices indicated they were interested in the question of how far states may go in regulating abortion but would not take up the underlying issue of a woman's right to end her pregnancy.
Meanwhile, the Court heard oral arguments on January 19 on the constitutionality of a Colorado law creating a "floating bubble zone" that requires protesters to keep at least eight feet away from patients and staff entering and leaving reproductive health facilities. The case—which pits the free speech rights of abortion demonstrators against the right of women to obtain medical care—appears to be a close one for the justices. In 1994 the Court upheld "fixed" buffer zones barring demonstrations within 36 feet of clinic entrances and driveways, but in 1997 it struck down a judge-imposed floating bubble zone that allowed a 15-foot space around patients and staff as they entered or left clinics. In light of its 1997 ruling, the justices ordered Colorado's supreme court to reconsider Colorado's law. But even after its reevaluation, the state court concluded that the Colorado law could survive constitutional challenge. As with the "partial-birth" abortion case, the justices are expected to announce their decision before the Supreme Court adjourns for the year early this summer.