The U.S. Supreme Court may end up finally settling whether it is legal for states to ban partial-birth abortions, because federal appeals courts are rendering contradictory judgments.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago recently upheld state laws in Illinois and Wisconsin that ban partial-birth abortions. The Seventh Circuit's decision contradicts a September ruling by the Eighth Circuit appeals court, which struck down partial-birth abortion bans in Nebraska, Arkansas, and Iowa. The disagreement between two appeals courts of equal influence may lead the Supreme Court to issue its own ruling.

About 30 states have partial-birth abortion bans, but at least 14 of those laws have been struck down in court. According to the National Right to Life Committee, ten states (including Illinois and Wisconsin) actively ban partial-birth abortions: Indiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia. The New Jersey legislature also recently passed a partial-birth abortion ban in October over the veto of Governor Christine Todd Whitman.

Pro-abortion activists believe the Supreme Court ruling could affect the way Roe v. Wade is interpreted in future cases. Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, says the circuit court's ruling disregards that abortion is a "fundamental constitutional right." She fears that if the Supreme Court agrees with the Seventh Circuit, the decision would be "the death knell of Roe."

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, is quick to point out that "the Supreme Court could uphold these laws without disturbing Roe."

The language of Roe refers to unborn fetuses, but partial-birth abortion procedures are performed while the fetus is being born.

Partial-birth abortions are usually implemented during the second or third trimesters of a pregnancy. The procedure involves partially removing a fetus from the womb, inserting scissors into its skull and extracting its brain before removing its entire body.

In October a federal ban on partial-birth abortions was passed by the Senate for the third time, but it fell short of the majority needed to override President Clinton's expected veto. The 49 Republicans and 14 Democrats who voted in favor of the bill came up 2 votes shy of the number needed for a two-thirds majority.

The House, which has overturned President Clinton's veto on this legislation twice, is also expected to consider the ban next year.

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