The Supreme Court's endorsement of the first federal curbs on an abortion procedure in a generation suggests that even with Democrats in control of Congress, efforts to preserve abortion rights may be losing ground.
Both sides in the volatile abortion debate said they now expect a spate of efforts in several states to place further limits on abortion - and that a court reshaped by President Bush's conservative picks will be more willing to uphold them.
Meanwhile, abortion rights champions expressed little hope that efforts to enshrine in federal law that a woman has a right to choose could succeed in Congress.
The politics of abortion
Wednesday's ruling - a turning point in a debate that has engaged the nation for more than three decades - confirmed the worst fears of abortion rights supporters and the highest hopes of abortion opponents: that Bush's push to leave his stamp on the court could open the way for a host of new abortion restrictions.
The outlawed procedure, generally used to end pregnancies in the second and third trimester, involves partially removing the fetus intact from a woman's uterus, then crushing or cutting its skull to complete the abortion. Opponents of the procedure call it partial-birth abortion.
By validating a ban on such abortions, "the court has taken the first major step back" toward the days when abortion was illegal, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
"What it says to me is that this court is willing to disregard prior precedent, and they are waiting for an opportunity to overturn Roe," Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said in an interview, referring to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that said women have a right to choose abortions.
The 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy said the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act that Congress passed and Bush signed into law in 2003 does not violate a woman's constitutional right to an abortion.
Gandy called Wednesday's decision the court's most political since Bush v. Gore, the 2000 ruling that handed Bush the presidency.
Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group, said the ruling "provides further encouragement" to state and federal lawmakers to enact better "informed consent" laws, such as those requiring that women be offered an opportunity to see ultrasounds or hear about a fetus' ability to feel pain before they have an abortion.
Federal versus State
Such legislation is pending in several state legislatures and has been introduced Congress.
"We have a court now that has correctly yielded to the Congress and the legislative branch," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. "This will bolster state legislators who are reflecting the views of their constituents on abortion."
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, a leading sponsor of the ban, said the court's ruling could return abortion-rights questions to the states, where he said they belong.
"It forced many people to consider what actually occurs when an abortion is carried out," Chabot said. "It's not a reach for one to think that the child is just as much a human being earlier in the process, and that those other forms of abortion are pretty awful too."
Abortion rights champions expressed alarm at that prospect.
"The court has given anti-choice state lawmakers the green light to open the flood gates and launch additional attacks on safe, legal abortion, without any regard for women's health," said Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said they would reintroduce a measure to put a woman's right to have an abortion in federal law. Feinstein, however, acknowledged that abortion rights supporters do not have the votes to prevail in Congress.
"We've been losing fight after fight after fight," she said, adding that people have become complacent about protecting abortion rights because they have existed for more than a generation.
The upholding of the ban was the culmination of a dozen years of efforts by abortion opponents to outlaw a procedure that public opinion polls have shown most Americans believe should be illegal.
The public is nearly evenly split on abortion in general, polls show, but the vast majority of Americans back some restrictions on it. Surveys have found that more than 60 percent favor banning the procedure outlawed in Wednesday's ruling. That makes the ban an exceedingly difficult political proposition even for Democrats who are strong champions of abortion rights.
"It's a Democratic Congress, but it's not a pro-choice Congress," NOW's Gandy said, adding that it was unlikely that lawmakers would step in to try to reverse the ban or take other action to beat back additional abortion curbs.
Instead, liberal activists said the decision demonstrated the importance of putting Democrats in the White House and in Congress, where they would be positioned to name and confirm Supreme Court justices who support abortion rights.
"The reaction to this decision could help educate many Americans who, quite frankly, have grown complacent about a constitutional right to reproductive health," said Ralph Neas of People for the American Way.