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Republicans try to spark US Supreme Court showdown over abortion

Abortion rights activists and opponents mark the anniversary of the decision in Roe vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the US
Abortion rights activists and opponents mark the anniversary of the decision in Roe vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the US AFP/File
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Washington (AFP)

Republican-led legislatures in state after state are passing bills restricting abortion access in a bid to eventually challenge the 1973 US Supreme Court ruling allowing a woman to terminate a pregnancy.

Opponents of abortion rights are hoping that the moves will prompt the nation's highest court, which now has a conservative majority, to overturn its landmark decision in Roe vs Wade.

The latest state to pass abortion restrictions is Alabama, where the state senate approved legislation by a 25-6 vote on Tuesday that places a near-total ban on ending a pregnancy, even in cases of rape and incest.

Under the bill, doctors who perform abortions could face between 10 and 99 years in prison. The legislation is now awaiting the signature of Kay Ivey, the state's Republican governor.

Last week, the Republican governor of Georgia signed into law a ban on abortion from the moment a fetal heartbeat is detected. Georgia thus became the sixth US state to outlaw abortion after roughly six weeks of gestation.

Ohio, Mississippi, Kentucky, Iowa and North Dakota have enacted similar laws, while electoral powerhouses Florida and Texas are considering following suit.

All of the state bans have either been blocked by a judge or are headed for the courts, and some of their backers have said that's exactly what they want -- for the issue to go all the way to the nine-member Supreme Court.

"It's designed in every way to do just that," said Terri Collins, the Republican state senator who sponsored the Alabama bill.

The Republican bid to force a showdown over Roe vs Wade comes as President Donald Trump is ramping up for a 2020 re-election campaign with abortion as a hot-button issue.

The Supreme Court has previously reaffirmed a woman's constitutional right to an abortion, but some anti-abortion activists believe the time may have come to turn the tables.

Since taking office, Trump has appointed two conservative justices -- Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh -- and liberal members of the court are now outnumbered five to four.

Conservative-leaning Chief Justice John Roberts is seen as the potential swing vote if the constitutionality of abortion eventually comes before the court.

- 'Constitutional right' -

The Alabama legislation and the moves to restrict abortion in other states drew a firestorm of criticism on Wednesday from Democrats.

"This Alabama effort, and the effort across this country now in 29 states, is an all-out attack on women's reproductive freedom and our basic civil rights," said New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is among the 22 candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

"This is a plan by the Republican Party, make no mistake, to overturn Roe vs Wade and turn back the clock on women's reproductive civil and human rights," Gillibrand told CNN.

Former vice president Joe Biden, who is also seeking to head the Democratic ticket, said Republicans "are ushering in laws that clearly violate Roe v Wade and they should be declared unconstitutional.

"Roe v Wade is settled law and should not be overturned," Biden said. "The choice should remain between a woman and her doctor."

"Abortion is a constitutional right," said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, another 2020 hopeful. "What Alabama is doing is blatantly unconstitutional and disrespects the fundamental right a woman has to make decisions about her own body."

Former first lady and secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, said the abortion bans are "appalling attacks on women's lives and fundamental freedoms.

"None of us should accept a future in which our daughters and granddaughters have fewer rights than we do," Clinton said.

In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center late last year, 58 percent of those surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases while 37 percent said it should be illegal.

Americans were split along party lines, with 59 percent of Republicans saying abortion should be illegal and 76 percent of Democrats saying it should be legal in most cases.

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