US Supreme Court weighs high-stakes abortion case

US high court takes up explosive abortion debate

Washington (AFP) - The US Supreme Court takes up Wednesday the biggest challenge in decades to legalized abortion, a divisive issue being addressed in the middle of the presidential campaign.

With the court now split evenly between liberals and conservatives, all eyes are on Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose swing vote on this issue that has long roiled US politics could determine the availability of abortion services nationwide.

The case before the justices challenges a 2013 Texas law that imposes restrictions on abortion clinics so rigorous that activists say it has forced more than half of the state's 41 centers to close.

Activists warn that if the law is upheld, that would leave just 10 abortion clinics in the second largest US state, home to an estimated 5.4 million women of child-bearing age.

The liberal justices will be working hard to get the support of Kennedy, who helped draft a ruling 24 years ago that struck down state restrictions that impose an "undue burden" on a woman's right to abortion.

If the justices split 4-4, however, it would leave intact last year's US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruling that upheld the Texas law.

On February 24, that same lower court allowed a similar Louisiana law to go into effect that has already forced at least half of the state's clinics to close.

Hundreds of thousands of women are having or will have to seek abortion services far from their homes, and face a weeks-long wait, under the Texas law.

It requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and their clinics to meet the costly standards of an ambulatory surgical center.

"This case is so important nationwide because some of the opponents of the right to abortion have enacted and are trying to enact similar laws in other states," said attorney Michael Dell, who represents women who had abortions.

- 'Deep pain' -

Backers of the law say it aims to protect women's health.

But critics say that's a pretext for a thinly veiled Republican attempt to overturn the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion.

"I am highly skeptical of the claims that these measures are intended to safeguard women's health," said Sherry Colb of Cornell Law School.

"They operate as stumbling blocks in the path of clinics that had already been providing safe (and legal) abortions."

The procedure, while sometimes life-saving for the mother, can also cause severe health problems such as hemorrhaging, and can puncture her uterus and colon, critics note. Some women die.

"There is deep pain," said Allan Parker, president of The Justice Foundation, which filed a brief to the high court containing the testimonies of more than 3,000 women injured by abortion.

Nona Ellington told AFP she was just 15 years old when she had a horrific abortion after a date rape.

She had been told her fetus was "only a blob of tissue," and was only partially anesthetized for the procedure.

The subsequent trauma saw her spiral into a life of promiscuity and drug and alcohol abuse.

"I was trying to numb the pain, low self-esteem, depression," said Ellington, who tried to commit suicide 15 years later.

"I want women and men to know the truth about abortion, that it hurts women."

In the months following the abortion, she met the man who became her husband, a man who beat her and sexually assaulted her for two decades. They divorced after an 18-year marriage.

Her uterus was scarred from the abortion and she was unable to bear children, losing five fetuses to miscarriage.

Ellington now advocates for alternatives to abortion, such as crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and adoptions.

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