The U.S. Supreme Court will revisit the politically divisive issue of abortion later this year. The abortion case in question will be a major test for a court that now includes two appointees of President Bush, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Associate Justice Samuel Alito.
The Supreme Court has agreed to review a law passed by Congress in 2003 that prohibits a procedure that opponents refer to as partial birth abortion.
It is a procedure in which the fetus is partially removed from the womb and its skull collapsed.
The federal law in question allows the procedure if a mother's life is at risk. But the law does not allow an exception to preserve a woman's health. Abortion opponents see that as a loophole that would allow women to demand an abortion for a variety of reasons.
Oral arguments before the court will be held in October at the earliest. But abortion opponents are already expecting a ruling in their favor because of the two new members on the high court appointed by President Bush, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito.
Longtime anti-abortion activist Randall Terry says a court decision to uphold the ban on partial birth abortions could begin the process of reversing the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion known as Roe v. Wade.
"I am confident that we will win this time around," he said. "I am also confident that this is part of chipping away at Roe versus Wade."
Abortion rights groups argue that upholding the ban on partial birth abortions without an exception for the health of the mother could be used to prohibit a number of abortion procedures and amounts to an erosion of a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion or not.
"It has been a very long commitment of the court to the constitutional proposition that women cannot have their health put at risk when having an abortion," said Nancy Northup, who heads an abortion rights group called the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Legal analysts say the partial birth abortion ban is the most significant abortion case before the Supreme Court in years. They also say the eventual ruling on the case will say a lot about the new direction on the high court, given the Roberts and Alito appointments.
"Well, the United States Supreme Court has become increasingly important over the years," said Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar at George Washington University. "There are a host of doctrines that currently are held by a single vote. It is up to the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution, but also to interpret federal statutes."
The last time the high court dealt with this issue was in 2000 when the court decided by a vote of five to four that a partial birth abortion ban must include a health exception for the mother.
The deciding vote was cast by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has now retired and been replaced by Justice Alito.
Public opinion analysts note that abortion remains one of the most divisive cultural and political issues in the United States.
"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," added David Masci of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a non-partisan research organization in Washington.
A poll last year by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut found that three-quarters of those surveyed supported a ban on partial birth abortions except when the life of the mother was at stake.
A Supreme Court ruling is expected either late this year or early in 2007. In the meantime, the law in question has been blocked from taking effect by lower federal courts.