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Abortion Rights Groups Say Legal Fights Loom

by Lisa Vives

NEW YORK - The 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave women the right to abortion -- is being observed this week amid concerns over threats to erode or eliminate a woman's reproductive rights.Republicans on the campaign trail have almost universally condemned Roe v. Wade and President George w. Bush this week voiced support for abortion opponents attending a Washington 'right to life' protest and rally, inviting about 200 of them for coffee and doughnuts at the White House.

Protests by anti- and pro-abortion activists took place this week across the country marking the high court ruling. Politicians used the occasion to rally their supporters. Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, called Roe v. Wade 'a great American tragedy that has led to the loss of millions of innocent lives.'

Members of the Democratic Party, including the leading contenders for the presidential nomination, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, spoke out strongly in favour of women's right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

'We have a huge fight (to preserve a woman's right to choose),' said Rhonda Copelon, a law professor and director of the International Women's Human Rights Clinic of the City University of New York School of Law, 'but I think this is the time to fight it.'

'In the last 35 years, anti-choice groups have grown more vicious, lashing out against the landmark Supreme Court decision as part of their ongoing campaign to eviscerate it,' says Kim Gandy, president of the National Organisation of Women (NOW).

'We have endured more than three decades of challenges and roadblocks from a well-funded opposition, and our rights are more tenuous than ever -- so now, more than ever, we have to fight to keep Roe alive,' said Gandy.

Legislation limiting woman's rights has met with some success. In 2006, South Dakota lawmakers made it a felony for doctors to perform any abortion except to save the life of a pregnant woman, but the law was reversed by voters later that year.

Last April, the Supreme Court upheld an abortion procedure ban without any exception to protect the woman's health.

'The Court's majority opinion leaves women out of this equation and allows the state's supposed interest in 'promoting fetal life' to trump women's rights to control the direction of our lives,' noted Annie Tummino of the activist group Women's Liberation Birth Control Project. 'Two Justices, Thomas and Scalia, even went so far as to say that 'the Court's abortion jurisprudence, including Casey and Roe, has no basis in the Constitution'.'

'What's more, doctors who choose to uphold our rights can now be prosecuted,' she said.

In Missouri, a proposed ballot measure, if adopted, would ban abortion in almost all circumstances and could spur a legal challenge before the Supreme Court.

Between four and eight ballot measures imposing new restrictions on abortion rights could face voters in upcoming state polls.

A new report by the Guttmacher Institute, a NYC-based research organisation studying reproductive health, has found that medically-induced abortions are dropping to historic lows. In 2005, they found, the abortion rate dipped to 19.4 per 1,000 women, its lowest level since 1974.

Many factors could explain this, says Rachel Jones, an author of the report, and 'we just aren't able to get at the reasons behind the decline.'

While traditional abortion providers are fewer in number, there has been a rise in the number of new clinics that offer only 'early medication abortion services,' or RU486, a medication that terminates a pregnancy in the first trimester by blocking the effects of progesterone.

Since the drug was introduced in the United States in September 2000, more than 840,000 women have taken it, and the Guttmacher study estimates that it is now used in 14 percent of all abortions, up from 6 percent in 2001.

Clinics that offer only RU486 -- not surgical abortions -- are growing in popularity. Also showing an increase is the use of a 'morning after' contraceptive pill, known as Plan B, available for women 18 and older.

About 150,000 of the 1.2 million abortions in the United States in 2006 were done with medication, the Guttmacher Institute has estimated.

'Mifepristone (RU-486) is clearly starting to become an important part of the abortion provision in the United States,' said Lawrence Finer, who studies the drug at Guttmacher. 'I think we'll continue to see increases.'

Of the roughly 1.2 million U.S. women who have abortions each year, half are 25 or older. Only about 17 percent are teens. About 60 percent have given birth to at least one child prior to getting an abortion.

A disproportionately-high number of women having abortions are African American or Latino. New figures from the Centres for Disease Control show they account for 35 percent of the abortions.

Meanwhile, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc. has announced plans to spend 10 million dollars in a major effort to elect pro-abortion-rights candidates to Congress and the White House in November.

'We've seen in this presidential election, unfortunately, in the Republican primaries a real rush to the far edges ... folks really trying to move us in a direction antithetical to where the American people are,' said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood's political arm.

The campaign would wait for the results of the presidential primary elections before deciding which states get its most intense efforts, she said.

© 2008 Inter Press Service

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