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Justices question lawyers on abortion procedure

Supreme Court weighs action on 'partial-birth' ban

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court justices yesterday sharply questioned attorneys on both sides of the legal battle over what opponents call partial-birth abortions as the high court weighed whether to uphold Congress's ban on the procedure.

In an intense morning of arguments, lawyers for the Bush administration and supporters of abortion rights gave starkly contrasting views: A law passed by Congress labels it a gruesome and inhumane practice. Supporters argue that such abortions in the second trimester of pregnancy sometimes are the safest for women.

A man in the audience began shouting midway through the proceedings, disrupting the hearing briefly before police dragged him away.

Seven justices took part in questioning both sides about whether the court should defer to congressional findings that these abortions are never medically necessary.

Abortion advocates disagree, saying there is strong medical evidence to the contrary.

"We have no evidence in the record" as to how often such a situation arises? Chief Justice John Roberts asked.

"No, your honor," replied attorney Priscilla Smith, who argued for striking down the federal law.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned the rationale that abortion opponents are using in the case, saying the assertion that the technique is a particularly gruesome procedure also could apply to the most commonly used method of abortion in the second trimester.

"I don't think so, Justice Ginsburg," Solicitor General Paul Clement replied.

At issue is the fate of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which Congress passed and President Bush signed into law in 2003.

Six federal courts have struck down the law as an impermissible restriction on a woman's constitutional right to an abortion that the Supreme Court established in its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973.

Doctors most often refer to the procedure as a dilation and extraction or an intact dilation and evacuation abortion. It involves partially extracting a fetus from the uterus, then cutting or crushing its skull.

Ninety percent of all abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and are not at issue.

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