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Is the US about to ban abortion?

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Anti-abortion protesters outside the US Supreme Court

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Alabama introduces toughest legislation yet, The Week looks at whether a nationwide ban could be on the horizon

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Thursday, May 16, 2019 - 5:48am

Alabama has become the latest US state to impose strict abortion laws, setting up a potential showdown with the Supreme Court which pro-life activists hope could result in a nationwide ban.

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The law, which has yet to be signed by Governor Kay Ivery, incudes a ban on abortion in cases of rape or incest and could see doctors face up to 99 years in prison for performing a termination.

The bill, which only allows exceptions “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child's mother,” for ectopic pregnancy and if the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly” has been widely described as the most restrictive in the country.

“Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced this year in 16 states, four of whose governors have signed bills banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected,” reports The Independent.

According to the BBC, “opponents say this amounts to a ban on abortion because cardiac activity in an embryo can be detected as early as the sixth week, before a woman may be aware that she is pregnant”

Anti-abortion advocates know any laws they pass are certain to be challenged. Courts this year have blocked a restrictive Kentucky law and another in Iowa passed last year. “But supporters of the Alabama ban said the right to life of the foetus transcends other rights, an idea they would like tested at the Supreme Court,” reports Reuters.

The country’s highest court, now with a majority of conservative justices after Republican president Donald Trump appointed two, could possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision establishing a woman’s right to an abortion.

The National Organisation for Women (NOW) denounced the ban as unconstitutional and CNN says it “quite clearly will challenge the ruling, since prohibiting abortion in all but one case seems to directly come into conflict with the Supreme Court's finding that it is against the law to place an 'undue burden' on a woman seeking an abortion before a viable feotus – one that can live outside the womb – emerges”.

However, “the jury’s out on whether this strategy could be successful - even with the current balance of the Supreme Court,” writes Claire Murphy from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service in the Daily Telegraph, “but at the very least, it means pro-choice campaigners are having to put their all into fighting off an avalanche of restrictions, in the knowledge that in doing so they are potentially paving the way for the Supreme Court challenge their opponents desire”.

It seems the appointment of two conservative Supreme Court judges by Donald Trump has emboldened the anti-abortion movement, who sense an opportunity to finally achieve their decades-long dream of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, director of Planned Parenthood state media campaigns, said in a press conference that the future is dangerous for women’s health rights, especially under the Trump administration.

“We have a President of the United States who willfully lies to the American people to score political points and to provide political cover for politicians who are passing extreme anti-women’s bills. With Trump in the White House and (Brett) Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court women’s health and rights are under assault like never before,” she said.

However, “we cannot sit smug and superior on our side of the Atlantic,” writes Murphy, adding Alabama’s new law is actually “less draconian than the laws women in our own country must contend with every day”.

“Pro-choice campaigners in the region say Northern Irish anti-abortion laws are actually stricter than the legislation Republican senators have introduced in the southern US state,” says The Guardian.

They point out that, unlike under Alabama’s new law, women in Northern Ireland can face jail sentences up to life because the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act remains in place. Under this piece of Victorian legislation, anyone procuring an abortion – medical staff or pregnant women – can face life imprisonment.

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