The U.S. Supreme Court takes up the divisive issue of abortion Wednesday in a legal challenge that is being closely watched by abortion rights supporters and opponents.
At issue are two cases that challenge abortion restrictions passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2003.
The law in question bans a procedure that opponents call "partial birth abortion." Abortion rights supporters prefer the medical term, intact dilation and extraction.
The procedure involves collapsing the skull of the fetus, so that it can be removed intact through the mother's birth canal.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases challenging the constitutionality of the ban on the procedure. Abortion rights supporters say the law should be struck down because Congress did not include an exception to the ban for instances when a woman's health might be in jeopardy, if she were denied access to the procedure.
"Those women deserve our respect and our support, not some paternalistic attempt by the church or the state to intrude ourselves into these most personal, intimate decisions," said the Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, an Episcopal priest and an abortion rights advocate.
Opponents of the procedure want the high court to uphold the congressional ban on what they call partial birth abortions.
"What everybody sees, because of the nature of this procedure, is a frail, small, human body, nearly completely delivered of the mother, stabbed, the contents of its head emptied and died in front of everybody," said Helen Alvare, a law professor at Catholic University in Washington.
Supporters of the ban on so-called partial birth abortions say the law already includes an exception when the life of the mother is in danger. The law passed by Congress includes an assertion that partial birth abortion is never medically necessary to protect the health of the mother.
"Women need advice to respect their bodies and demand that men do the same. They need really not to get pregnant, without a marital situation that can support that child in the long run, and themselves. They need to be able to see children as the gift they are," said Alvare.
Several lower federal courts struck down the partial birth abortion ban citing the law's lack of an exception for the health of the mother. One federal appeals court ruled that the law was too vague, and might be used to ban other abortion procedures now legal.
Abortion rights supporters see this case as a crucial test for a Supreme Court that includes two new members appointed by President Bush, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Alito replaced retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who had long been a reliable supporter of abortion rights on the high court.
"The Supreme Court, in this case, should send a clear message to the Congress that settled law [previously decided cases] - and particularly settled law for 30 years going back to Roe [Roe Versus Wade decision legalizing abortion] that established a bright line rule that pregnant women's health may not be subordinated to opposition to abortion - that should be affirmed," said Nancy Northup, who heads the Center for Reproductive Rights, a leading abortion rights advocacy group.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy in the landmark case known as Roe versus Wade. But, since then, the court has expanded the authority of the individual states to regulate abortion, as long as they did not, in the words of the high court, pose an undue burden on a woman's right to an abortion.
The high court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the partial birth abortion ban early next year.