Video: Justices to take on abortion issue

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear a case considering the constitutionality of a federal law banning a type of late-term abortion.  Pete Williams, NBC's justice correspondent, answers some key questions about both the story and the court for MSNBC.com.

MSNBC: What is the abortion case the court agreed to hear?

Pete Williams: The court took up a challenge to federal law, passed in 2003 but blocked ever since by court battles, that would ban a certain type of late-term abortions that opponents call "partial-birth" abortions. In the procedure, which doctors call "intact dilation and evacuation," the fetus is partially delivered intact and its skull is then collapsed. Three separate federal appeals courts have declared the law unconstitutional because the federal ban does not allow for exceptions when the health of a mother would be endangered without the procedure. Defenders maintain that the procedure is never medically necessary to protect a woman’s health.

MSNBC: Why did Congress pass the ban when the Supreme Court ruled earlier that similar laws were unconstitutional?

Williams: Congress acted after the Supreme Court in 2000 struck down laws in more than half the states that banned the procedure. The court said the law must contain a health exception as long as "substantial medical authority supports the medical necessity of the procedure in some instances." In passing the federal ban, Congress found that medical opinion was to the contrary, that the procedure posed safety risks and was never necessary to save a woman's life. But opponents of the federal ban say medical opinion has shifted even more strongly in favor of the abortion procedure.

MSNBC:  What has changed since the court's last ruling on this in 2000?

Williams: The biggest change has been on the court itself, with John Roberts succeeding William Rehnquist as chief justice and Justice Samuel Alito succeeding Sandra Day O'Connor. On this issue, however, if Roberts votes to uphold the federal ban, he'd be voting the same way as Rehnquist, who voted in 2000 to uphold the state ban. But the court's 2000 decision came on a 5-4 vote, with Justice O'Connor voting to strike down the ban. If the remaining justices vote this time as they did last time, Alito could tip the balance the other way. Alito, in his rulings on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, has been more willing than O’Connor, the first woman justice, to allow restrictions on abortions, which were legalized in the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

MSNBC: How quickly will the Supreme Court hear the case?

Williams: The court's calendar is full for the rest of the term, so the case won't be heard until early in the next term, which begins in October. For now, the federal ban will remain in limbo, blocked by the lower court decisions and therefore unenforceable.

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