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Abortion-notification case could test changing court



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WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court today will hear its first abortion case in five years, a New Hampshire dispute that could be an early test of whether a reshaped court will change its views on how much states can restrict the procedure.

At issue is whether states may bar doctors from performing an abortion on a girl younger than 18 unless one of her parents has been notified -- even when the girl has a health emergency. Forty-three states have passed laws requiring parental notification or consent before a minor can have an abortion, but most states have exceptions for when a doctor believes a girl's health could suffer if the procedure were delayed.

It will be the first abortion case the court has heard under Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined the court last month. He has said he believes in a right to privacy, the basis for the right to abortion. The conservative jurist hasn't given his views on how states should be able to limit abortion.

On a nine-member court with six justices who have backed abortion rights, Roberts replaced one who opposed them -- the late William Rehnquist. So even if Roberts turns out to be a staunch foe of abortion rights, it's unclear whether he could move the court toward further restrictions.

The greater potential for a rightward shift in the court's view of abortion rights lies with conservative federal Judge Samuel Alito, President Bush's pick to replace the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been a key vote for abortion rights. In 2000, she was part of a 5-4 majority that rejected Nebraska's ban on a procedure critics call "partial birth" abortion. Alito, whose Senate confirmation hearings will begin Jan. 9, could end up having a vote in the New Hampshire case if he is confirmed before the court, including O'Connor, resolves the case and it then has to be reargued.

The case does not challenge the right to abortion set by the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973. But it could determine whether health exceptions must be in all abortion laws, including a federal ban on "partial birth" abortion that is headed to the high court. It also tests whether abortion laws can be challenged before they take effect, or only after individual women can claim they have been harmed.

A recent USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll found most Americans back abortion rights but also want limits on abortion.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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