Washington: The US Supreme Court and its conservative majority are back in session on Monday and will likely weigh in again on the hot-button issue of legalizing abortion.
In its last term, the high court presided by George W. Bush appointee Chief Justice John Roberts put its mark on sensitive social matters, such as the right to recite Christian prayers at town meetings or raising the bar for affirmative action in university admissions.
Just before its summer recess in late June, the highest court in the land agreed to review two cases on the politically fraught issue of abortion.
The move came as an increasing number of US states pass laws limiting abortion.
The Court will review a new law restricting use of the RU-46, also known as the Mifepristone abortion pill, that was approved in the state of Oklahoma.
The Court took the unusual move of asking Oklahoma to clarify its law, which the state Supreme Court has blocked.
"Abortion was necessarily going to be in the news in 2013, as this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade, which has unquestionably become one of the Court's all-time controversial rulings," said legal expert Howard Bashman.
"This case simply presents too tempting a target, for the very reasons that lie behind the emergence of this seemingly technical dispute about medical practice," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and fellow Linda Greenhouse of Yale Law School.
At issue "is the Supreme Court's own unstable abortion doctrine, specifically on where five justices might be willing to draw a line between acceptable and impermissible obstacles to access to abortion."
After two consecutive years marked by decisions on explosive issues such as gay marriage and President Barack Obama's sweeping health reform, the Supreme Court could take up yet another hot button topic this year.
"It could be a big deal, with significant consequences on abortion rights," Tom Goldstein, who blogs about the Supreme Court on the influential SCOTUSblog, recently said at a conference.
The controversy resurfaces regularly on the steps of the Supreme Court itself, as well as in front of abortion clinics, where "pro-life" activists demonstrate their anger with slogans and crude photographs of aborted fetuses.
The second abortion case the Court has agreed to study is a Massachusetts law restricting protests at abortion clinics by setting a 35-foot (10-meter) "buffer zone" around the facilities' entrances, exits and driveways.
Pro-life activists want the justices to strike down the measure, saying it violates the US Constitution's First Amendment free speech protections and 14th Amendment equal protection rights.
"We are optimistic the court will not only strike down the Massachusetts law, but also revisit some of its own prior precedents that led lower courts to believe that, as a matter of law, pro-life speech is less deserving of protection," said Dana Cody, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation.
Beyond the high court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, a 1992 ruling -- "Planned Parenthood v. Casey" -- is also at stake because it reaffirmed Americans' fundamental right to abortion, as well as authorized states' rights to limit the practice so long as the restrictions are justified.
In a Court that often leans to the right, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy -- who sided with the liberals in 1992 -- has since shown he is more inclined to limit access to abortion.
And with progressive justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who authored the 1992 decision, being replaced by conservative justice Samuel Alito, "there may no longer be a majority on the court to strike down any burden on access to abortion," Greenhouse said.
In addition, the 2013-14 term could also see progressive Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg retire at age 80.
Observers say Ginsburg will likely leave the Court during Obama's term - which ends in January 2017 - and likely before the November 2014 mid-term elections.
Story First Published: September 29, 2013 08:41 IST