The divisive issue of abortion is likely to be a major point of debate in next year's U.S. presidential election, thanks to a recent ruling by the Supreme Court. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

By a vote of five to four, the high court handed abortion opponents their most significant victory since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its famous 1973 decision known as Roe Versus Wade.

The court upheld a law passed by Congress that bans a controversial late term procedure that opponents call partial birth abortion. The procedure involves partially removing the fetus from the mother's uterus and then crushing its skull to complete the abortion.

Anti-abortion activists welcomed the ruling crafted by the court's narrow five-member conservative majority and predicted it would inspire more challenges to abortion in the individual states.

Anne Scheidler is executive director of a group called the Pro Life Action League.

"We will continue to be fighting all kinds of abortion," said Anne Scheidler. "But it is good news that the court has allowed a restriction. Every message we can get out about how tragic abortion is for everyone involved, the mom, the baby, the baby's father. You know, anybody who is involved in abortion is going to suffer from it."

Abortion rights supporters saw the high court's ruling as their most significant defeat since the landmark 1973 Roe Versus Wade decision that legalized abortion.

They argue the procedure is relatively rare and is sometimes necessary to protect the health of the mother.

Longtime abortion rights activist Kate Michelman described the ruling as a setback for women's rights that will encourage abortion opponents to press for even greater restrictions in the future.

"This decision not only threatens women's health and the practice of medicine and the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship, it threatens the fundamental dignity of women," said Kate Michelman. "One more [conservative] justice on the court and Roe Versus Wade will be overturned explicitly."

The key vote on the majority side in the ruling belonged to the high court's newest member, Justice Samuel Alito. Alito replaced retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a longtime supporter of abortion rights on the court.

Andrew Cohen is a legal analyst for CBS News.

"The calculus here does not favor supporters of abortion rights," he said. "The calculus favors opponents of it, because what you have had here is a huge shift to the right on the court. It is a shift that many people were concerned about, abortion rights supporters were concerned about, when Justice Alito was nominated, and now those fears have been confirmed."

Both sides in the abortion debate are mobilizing in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling and numerous legal challenges to abortion will now be fought out on the state level.

In addition, the high court decision has made it likely that abortion will figure as a major issue in the 2008 presidential election.

Tom DeFrank is Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News and a frequent guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.

"This is one area where President Bush has had some impact because he has had two appointees to the court, Chief Justice [John] Roberts and Associate Justice [Samuel] Alito, and they both voted in the majority on this, so I do believe there has been a shift. I think this is going to make the combatants on both sides of the abortion issue even more feverish about getting their money [fundraising] and their message out in advance of the 2008 presidential election."

Both sides in the abortion debate agree that the next president could tip the balance one way or the other on the issue, if he or she has the opportunity to appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court.