Justices Weigh Abortion Limits ; Court That Has Avoided Sweeping Abortion Rulings Today Tackles One of America's Thorniest Debates

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In a US Supreme Court term loaded with potential blockbuster cases, today the court takes up one of the most contentious debates in America: abortion.

It is the one issue in this presidential-election year that has sparked the most concern about future appointments of Supreme Court justices. And the issue is one that clearly separates the two major candidates for president, with Al Gore supporting a woman's right to choose abortion and George W. Bush opposed to legalized abortion except in certain rare cases.

For a court that has shied away from any sweeping new decisions on abortion, the case is a test of whether the justices are willing to grant states broader authority over abortion.

At issue before the court is a case that will decide whether states may outlaw a controversial medical procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion.

Specifically, the court is examining a Nebraska law that bars physicians in the state from performing a rare, late-term procedure that involves extracting most of the fetus into the birth canal before killing it. Abortion opponents, who favor the law, say such abortions are gruesome, unnecessary, and that they are "disturbingly close to infanticide."

Supporters of abortion rights say attempts to outlaw the procedure are part of a coordinated national crusade by abortion opponents. These opponents want to bypass Supreme Court precedents, they say, and sharply restrict the constitutional right of women to choose the safest abortion method.

"The [Nebraska] act is a deceptive maneuver in the campaign to erode women's right to choose abortion," says Simon Heller in a brief filed by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in support of a Nebraska abortion doctor, LeRoy Carhart, who's challenging the law.

Nebraska attorney general Don Stenberg counters that Nebraska's law and similar laws passed by 29 other states and Congress represent a broad-based response to a procedure "widely viewed as outside acceptable medical practice."

Some friend-of-the-court briefs ask the justices to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade precedent, which recognized a constitutional right to abortion. But analysts say the case will likely be decided on narrower grounds.

Nonetheless, abortion-rights proponents say if the court upholds the Nebraska law it could trigger a nationwide push for similar laws and subject other late-term abortion procedures to legal challenge. …