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 Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 15:21 GMT
US abortion debate intensifies
Anti-abortion prayer service in the US
Abortion excites strong emotions in the US

Thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators are gathering in Washington to march to the Supreme Court to demand an end to abortion on demand.

If the Republicans keep control of Congress, American women will lose the right to choose by 2008

Kate Michelman, Naral Pro-Choice America
Catholic bishops and 7,000 supporters have held an all-night vigil at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Across town 2,000 pro-choice activists gathered for a glitzy fundraiser on Tuesday night attended by all six of the Democratic candidates for their party's presidential nomination.

President Bush, who says he opposes the Supreme Court's view of abortion, will be sending a telephone message of support to the pro-life rally - but he has declined to appear in person.

The issue has moved to the centre of the political debate, exactly 30 years after the Supreme Court made abortion legal in the United States.

Mobilising issue

US anti-abortion forces have been active at the state level over the last decade, with more than 300 restrictions on abortion rights enacted by state legislatures during those years.

Abortion legalised by Supreme Court in landmark Roe v. Wade case in 1973
1.3 million abortions in 2000, down from 1.6 million in 1990
21.3 abortions per 1,000 women nationwide
Number of providers fell from 2,042 in 1996 to 1,819 in 2000
33 states limit abortions for minors
And those against abortion are also hoping that a change in the make-up of the US Supreme Court could tilt the legal system into reversing the previous judgement.

However, while the president has said that in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case, which legalised abortion, the Supreme Court "overstepped the Constitution," he has to tread cautiously.

That is because polls show that a majority of Americans still broadly support the right to abortion by a two to one majority.

Democrats are hoping that swing voters, especially suburban women in northern states, will be mobilised in the 2004 election to vote against the Republicans because of their pro-life stand.

Kate Michelman, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, says that if President Bush stays in office and the Republicans keep control of Congress", American women will lose the right to choose by 2008."

Membership of her organisation has grown by 70% to 400,000 in the past two years.

Fewer abortions

Meanwhile, abortion rates in the United States have hit their lowest level since 1974.

The availability of emergency contraception - the so-called "morning after pill" - has played a role in the decline.

But the fall in abortion rates could also be explained by more restrictive state laws and lack of access to abortion providers.

The US abortion rate rose sharply after legalisation in 1973, but has declined steadily since 1981.

It fell to from 30 per 1,000 women in 1974 to 21.3 per 1,000 women in 2000, and the number of abortion clinics has been falling steadily as well, from 2,042 in 1996 to 1,819 in 2000.

It remains however one of the highest rates in the industrialised world, in part, observers say, because of high numbers of unintended pregnancies.

Variation by states

The rate of abortion varies dramatically by state, with the large Northern states having the highest rates.

Many southern and western states now have mandatory waiting periods or counselling, restrictions on insurance coverage for abortion, and parental or court consent required before minors under 18 can have abortions.

And the rate of abortion has continued to climb for those below the poverty line has continued to climb, up 25% in the past five years, while rates for those with twice average earnings declined by 39%.

The District of Columbia - home of Washington, DC - had the highest rate of abortion, at 68.1 per 1,000 women.

Rural Wyoming was at the bottom of the table with one per 1,000 women.

Divisive issue

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in US politics.

In 1973, the nine-member Supreme Court ruled that a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy was protected by the right to privacy implied by the due process clause of the 14th amendment of the US Constitution.

The woman on whose behalf the case was originally fought, whose real name was Norma McCorvey, has subsequently come out against abortion, renouncing her pro-choice views in 1995 as a reborn Christian.

  The BBC's Nick Bryant
"Critics complain the Bush administration is trying to ban abortion through the back door"
See also:

15 Jan 03 | Americas
16 Jan 03 | Americas
23 Jan 02 | Americas
27 Apr 01 | Americas
28 Sep 00 | Health
03 Feb 99 | US abortion rights
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