WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court sidestepped part of a major abortion case, a new sign that the court is not yet moving aggressively to test the constitutional right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade.
In an apparent compromise in a case from Indiana, the justices turned down an appeal that asked the court to reinstate a state law banning abortions sought solely because of the sex or disability of a fetus. But the court upheld part of the same law requiring abortion providers to bury or cremate fetal remains.
The case, Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, No. 18-483, had been closely watched because it could have given the Supreme Court its first chance to consider the constitutionality of a state law restricting abortion since Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh replaced Justice Anthony M. Kennedy last year.
Justice Kennedy had been a cautious supporter of abortion rights, while Justice Kavanaugh’s limited record on the subject as an appeals court judge suggested some skepticism.
The modest move on Tuesday left for another day the consideration of state laws limiting abortion that were enacted, at least partly, to challenge Roe v. Wade. Such laws are being enacted at a brisk pace, including one in Alabama banning almost all abortions in the state, without exceptions for rape and incest, and others that bar the procedure after doctors can detect what the measures call a “fetal heartbeat,” which happens around six weeks of pregnancy.
The new laws are intended to give the Supreme Court an opportunity to reconsider Roe.
The court’s decision on Tuesday, issued without briefing on the merits or oral arguments, was unsigned and just three pages long. The court stressed that its decision on fetal remains was not a ruling about abortion rights.
In declining to hear an appeal on the law banning abortions sought for specific reasons, the court said it was expressing no views on the constitutionality of such laws. A split among lower courts is ordinarily required for Supreme Court review, and in this case, the court noted, there was no such disagreement.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have denied review of both issues in the case.
The Indiana law was enacted in 2016 and signed by Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president. It prohibited all abortions, at any time during a pregnancy, solely sought based on the fetus’s sex, or because it had been diagnosed with Down syndrome or “any another disability,” listing conditions like scoliosis, albinism, dwarfism and “physical or mental disease.” The law also barred abortions sought because of characteristics like race or national origin.
The state law also imposed limits on the disposal of fetal remains, though it allowed mass cremations and did not impose any restrictions on women who disposed of the remains themselves.
A statement issued by Mr. Pence’s office on Tuesday said he “commends the Supreme Court for upholding a portion of Indiana law that safeguards the sanctity of human life by requiring that remains of aborted babies be treated with respect and dignity.”
“We remain hopeful,” the statement said, “that at a later date the Supreme Court will review one of numerous state laws across the U.S. that bar abortion based on sex, race or disability.”
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago, unanimously struck down the provision limiting permissible reasons for having an abortion, though one judge said he did so reluctantly and only because he was bound by Supreme Court precedent.
In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court ruled that states may not prohibit abortions or place substantial obstacles in the way of women seeking them before fetal viability. Judge William J. Bauer, writing for the majority on the Seventh Circuit, said that ruling doomed the law’s restrictions.