The US Supreme Court on Wednesday took up its most important abortion case in a generation, the outcome of which could impact the ability of millions of women to end an unwanted pregnancy – as well as the White House race.
With the court now split evenly between liberals and conservatives following the death of Antonin Scalia, all eyes are on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wields a swing vote on the issue, one of the most divisive in the world of US politics.
In a sign of the passions aroused by the case, pro- and anti-abortion protesters camped outside the court for up to two days for a chance to attend Wednesday's hearing.
The case before the justices challenges a 2013 Texas law which imposes restrictions on abortion clinics – measure which activists say have forced more than half of the state's 41 centers to close.
Hundreds of people massed at the foot of the Supreme Court steps as the hearing got underway, with pro-choice campaigners chanting "Stop the sham!" and "Abortion access? Now!"
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.
Farah Diaz-Tello, 34, travelled from Texas in the name of a pro-choice group called National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW).
"It is important for me, as a Texan woman myself, that my sister, my friends have access to abortion services that they need," she told AFP.
"Everybody is hoping for Kennedy."
Far from home
The Texas law requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and their clinics to meet the standards of an ambulatory surgical center.
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.
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 imposing an "undue burden" on a women seeking an abortion.
If the justices split 4-4, however, it would leave intact last year's ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit 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 that state's clinics to close.
"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.
Backers of the Texas law say it aims to protect women's health in a state that long went without proper regulations for abortion clinics – opening the door for criminal malpractice.
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."
Abortion procedures, while sometimes life-saving for the mother, can also cause severe health problems such as hemorrhaging, and can result in a punctured uterus or colon, critics note. Some women die.
"There is deep pain," said Allan Parker, president of the anti-abortion 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.
Her uterus was scarred from the abortion and she was unable to bear children, losing five fetuses to miscarriage.
"I want women and men to know the truth about abortion, that it hurts women," said Ellington, who now advocates for alternatives to abortion, such as crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and adoptions.
Date created : 2016-03-02