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Abortion remains high court’s hottest issue

More than any other single issue, it's abortion that dominates the public debate over the Supreme Court. The first abortion case in five years is before the justices this term, and others will likely follow before the term is over. But what's the long-term outlook for Roe v. Wade?

For many Americans, it remains the issue, and it’s in play again with a nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, who's solidly for abortion rights. Counting O’Connor, at least six justices on the current court support Roe v. Wade.  Replacing her with someone opposed would leave a bare five-vote majority.

Harriet Miers isn't saying how she would vote if confirmed. John Roberts, the new chief justice, didn't say during his confirmation hearing, either.

But what if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade?

A study by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), an abortion rights group, predicts that 21 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin) would likely move quickly to ban abortion, judging by existing laws and political control.

Nine more (Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania), the study says, might also do the same, though it's less clear.

One of the study's authors says many states would act within days of a ruling. 

“There are a lot of people who are not mobile enough to get out of the way of an enormous hurricane,” says CRR's Priscilla Smith, “Think how difficult it will be for those women to try to get out of state to get an abortion.”

But some legal analysts think fewer states would outlaw abortion completely, though they may restrict its availability. 

“My guess is that in the clear majority of cases, perhaps the overwhelming majority of cases, after everything is shook out, abortion will remain legal at least in the earlier stages,” says Stuart Taylor with the National Journal.

For now, the legal battlefield is busy with cases restricting access to abortion. Later this year, the court considers a New Hampshire law requiring clinics to notify parents first — with no exception for cases involving a young woman's health.

“Its ramifications are likely to be felt not just in New Hampshire and not just with teens,” says Jennifer Dalven of the American Civil Liberties Union, “but by women all across the country.”

All of this unfolds as the number of women seeking abortions continues to decline, to its lowest level in nearly 30 years. But still, both sides agree, it is an issue of supreme importance.