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Political Battle Brewing Over Abortion Issue in US - 2003-01-21

For 30 years, the issue of abortion has represented one of the great divides in American politics. Activists on both sides of that divide are in Washington this week to mark the 30th anniversary Wednesday of the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Both sides are already preparing for a major political battle, if and when President Bush has an opportunity to nominate someone for a vacancy on the high court.

Anti-abortion protesters gather outside a Washington abortion clinic. They come to the nation's capital every year at this time to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision known as Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion.

Virginia Hodal is a mother of five who has come to Washington from Wisconsin with two of her daughters. She said, "What we want to do is get enough people, enough solidarity, and some day someone will look out and say, 'hey, you know, this is a democracy and more people are against abortion than are for abortion', and this has got to be changed."

With Republicans now controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, conservatives are expecting action on the abortion front. In addition to pushing Congress to enact more restrictions, abortion opponents like Edward Szymkoniak say at the very least the president must nominate an anti-abortion justice should a vacancy arise on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"If the president doesn't put forward someone who is opposed to the Roe v. Wade decision and the subsequent abortion decisions, then I think it will just show that he really isn't the 'pro-life person' that he has claimed to be. And again, you've got a Republican-controlled Congress. If you can't get the guy passed now, when will you ever get him through? So now is the time to act," Mr. Szymkoniak said.

The prospect of a vacancy on the Supreme Court has also energized abortion rights supporters who worry that a Bush appointee to the high court would upset the current five to four majority that has consistently upheld a woman's right to an abortion.

A protest in front of the Supreme Court was led by Terry O'Neill of the National Organization for Women. She said, "It remains the case that the people of this country believe in women's rights, they believe in equality, they believe in abortion rights, they believe in civil liberties and they believe in civil rights. That is the majority of the country. And it is our intention to see to it that the extremists, the right-wingers in Congress and in the White House are not allowed to really put their agenda through. And that is what we are going to do."

While most public opinion surveys indicate a majority of Americans support abortion rights, the polls also suggest many Americans favor restrictions on abortion, including requiring parental consent for women under the age of 18.

The most recent statistics indicate that the abortion rate in the United States has declined to its lowest level since 1974, with the largest drop reported among teenagers.

Supreme Court nominees must be confirmed by the Senate and Terry O'Neill of the National Organization for Women said her group is already urging Democrats to block any Bush appointee to the high court who opposes abortion.

"What we will be doing is insisting that our friends in the Senate filibuster any Supreme Court nominee, each and every one. George W. Bush may think that he has got a pool of 20 of them, that he will just keep bringing back anti-women rights supporters and we are going to seek filibusters of every single justice that does not support rights for women," Mr. O'Neill said.

As of now, none of the nine Supreme Court justices have indicated any plans to retire. But three of the justices, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist, are older than 70 and it is possible that one or more retirement announcements could come later this year, setting the stage for one of the most partisan political battles in recent memory.