A legal battle loomed Wednesday over strict new abortion restrictions enacted in Nebraska to target one of the few doctors in the United States who performs controversial late-term abortions.
The laws prohibit abortions performed after 20 weeks except when the woman is at risk of death or serious physical impairment and require doctors to screen their patients for a host of potential risk factors.
"We think it proposes a unique question to the court that has not been asked before and that is whether a state has an interest in protecting an unborn child who is capable of feeling pain," said Mary Spaulding Balch, director of state legislation for the National Right to Life.
In the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not restrict access to abortions prior to fetal viability -- which is generally seen to be somewhere around 24 weeks -- or when the pregnancy threatens the woman's health.
Balch said she hoped that new evidence showing that fetuses are capable of experiencing pain as early as 20 weeks would convince the Supreme Court to reconsider. "We have good reason to believe that we would have five (of the nine) justices of the current court who would give serious consideration to what Nebraska has done," Balch said in a telephone interview.
The court has been very clear in rejecting attempts by the state to set a gestational age rather than letting a doctor determine if the fetus is viable, said Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
"It's really important that this not be a vehicle to erode the constitutional law and not be a vehicle to block women who are in difficult circumstances from being able to make decisions with their doctors," Northup said.
While a doctor would still be legally allowed to perform abortions in cases where the woman's health was threatened, Nebraska's new law creates a legal minefield by requiring extensive screening for potential complications, Northup said.
"It's pretty impossible for doctors to comply with it, and it's going to be a trap for them," she told AFP.
Dr. LeRoy Carhart began performing abortions after 24 weeks of gestation in his Bellevue, Nebraska clinic after the nation's most high-profile provider of late-term abortions was shot to death in the foyer of his Kansas church last year.
Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood has said he proposed the abortion restrictions to prevent Carhart from performing the controversial procedures.
The legislation was signed law Tuesday and goes into effect in October.