Supreme Court to hear pro-abortion challenge

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The battle over abortion rights has returned to the US Supreme Court, where campaigners are fighting to overturn a New Hampshire law that requires minors to inform their parents before they can receive the operation.

It is the first time the court has heard an abortion rights case under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, and the outcome of the hearing - which will not be announced for some weeks - is unclear because of the recent shake-up in the court's membership.

In a filing before the court, the attorney general of New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, said the law "provides pregnant minors with the benefit of parental guidance and assistance in exercising what is undoubtedly a difficult choice".

But campaigners say the law places an "undue burden" on women and that the requirement could threaten their health. "In an emergency, a woman needs to go to the hospital, not a courthouse," the court was told by Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer for the abortion rights group Planned Parenthood. She added: "One of the main questions ... is whether doctors can continue to challenge harmful abortion restrictions before they threaten patients' health." While the case before the court does not directly challenge the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that decided women had the right to a legal abortion, campaigners say the New Hampshire law is one of many pieces of state legislation that have been steadily undermining the landmark decision. They point out that 87 per cent of counties across the US do not have a doctor or clinic that provides abortions.

Other campaigners believe the case has considerable implications for the health of young women. Amu Kumar, executive vice-president of the abortion rights group Ipas, said: "It certainly has implications for Roe v Wade, but equally important are the implications for the health care [of young people]."

The New Hampshire case is being closely watched by the dozens of other states that currently require minors to tell a parent or get permission before having an abortion. Justices were told that 24 states legally require a minor to obtain a parent's approval before they can receive an abortion. A total of 19 states, including New Hampshire, demand parents be notified.

It is unclear how the court will decide the case. Abortion was a prominent subject in Mr Roberts' confirmation hearings and has emerged as a major issue in President George Bush's nomination of appeals court Judge Samuel Alito to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring. Ms O'Connor has been the swing vote in support of abortion rights.

If Mr Alito is confirmed by the Senate early next year, his vote could be needed to break a tie in the New Hampshire case.