For the first time in five years, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case involving the divisive issue of abortion.
At issue is a New Hampshire law that requires young women seeking an abortion to first notify a parent or guardian. Forty-three states have enacted laws requiring minors to either get approval from, or notify, at least one of their parents before seeking an abortion.
All of the states, including New Hampshire, drop the notification requirement when a pregnant teenager faces a life-threatening health condition.
What is different about the New Hampshire law is that it does not include an exception for a health emergency, a serious but not necessarily life-threatening medical condition, which the other states have included.
Abortion rights supporters want the Supreme Court to find the New Hampshire law unconstitutional. "We are not talking about just chipping away if the court were to agree with the state of New Hampshire and the position of the Bush administration. It would be taking an axe to the trunk of the tree of the constitutional protection (of abortion) and cutting it down," said Nancy Northup, president of a group called the Center for Reproductive Rights..
Abortion opponents disagree with that view and see the New Hampshire case as the latest example of what they regard as reasonable restrictions on abortion, especially for teenage girls still living at home.
Bill Saunders, a conservative group called the Family Research Council said a teenage girl "cannot put the child up for adoption without her parent's consent. She cannot have any kind of surgery at all without her parent's consent. Why in the world would we carve out an exception here in the context of abortion?"
The New Hampshire case before the high court does not challenge the right to an abortion established by the 1973 Supreme Court decision known as Roe versus Wade.
But it does reflect a trend in recent years of the high court being called on to determine whether incremental restrictions on abortion enacted by the various states are constitutional.
"Abortion is probably the largest battle in the nation's culture war. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 62 percent of Americans felt that Supreme Court decisions on abortion are important to them personally, much higher than the 36 percent who said the same thing about court decisions related to homosexuality or the 38 percent who felt that way about cases involving affirmative action (minority opportunity programs)," said David Masci, with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a nonpartisan organization that monitors public opinion on a variety of controversial political and social issues.
The New Hampshire case is the first abortion test the Supreme Court has taken up in the last five years and the first one for the new Chief Justice, John Roberts.
Legal analysts say how the court rules in this case will indicate how the nine Supreme Court justices view the constantly evolving debate over abortion.
The high court is expected to issue a ruling in the case before next July.
In the meantime, abortion looms as a major issue in the upcoming Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito, President Bush's choice to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.