SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that armed forces medical benefits should cover abortion costs only when a mother's life is at risk, a decision that the judges acknowledged was ''callous and unfeeling."
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals came in the case of a sailor's wife whose fetus had a fatal birth defect. She had an abortion five months into her pregnancy, but coverage for the procedure was denied.
She filed a lawsuit claiming an armed forces health plan owed her $3,000 for the procedure. The government argued that refusing to cover such services ''furthers the government's interest in protecting human life in general and promoting respect for life."
In yesterday's 3-to-0 ruling, judges said they were not judging the ''wisdom, fairness, or logic" of congressional legislation that limited abortions under military medical plans. Lawmakers served a legitimate governmental purpose by denying such benefits because of ''an interest in potential life," Judge Richard C. Tallman wrote.
Lisa Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women's Law Center, which represented the sailor's wife, said: ''We believe it was worth it to pursue it because the basis for upholding the government's ban, -- the interest in potential human life -- does not apply here. There is no potential for human life."