The US Supreme Court backtracked on abortion rights for the first time in more than a generation on Wednesday, upholding a federal law banning a controversial late-term abortion procedure.
The bellwether ruling is a major victory for conservative forces in the US, which have battled for decades to reverse the landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade decision establishing a woman's legal right to terminate a pregnancy.
The narrow five-to-four decision came in a case challenging the constitutionality of a separate five-year-old law seeking to outlaw a procedure that critics call "partial-birth abortion."
US President George W. Bush hailed the decision, which he said affirms the "culture of life" espoused by many Americans.
"The partial-birth abortion ban, which an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress passed and I signed into law, represents a commitment to building a culture of life in America," Bush said.
Years of efforts to outlaw the "abhorrent procedure" reflect "the compassion and humanity of America," he said.
"The Supreme Court's decision is an affirmation of the progress we have made over the past six years in protecting human dignity and upholding the sanctity of life," he said. "We will continue to work for the day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law."
Abortion, one of the most divisive issues in US society, is a major fault line that has fractured this country along liberal-conservative lines for decades.
Of the one million voluntary abortions that take place in the US annually, the partial-birth abortion method accounts for a few thousand.
The controversial procedure -- carried out after the fifth month of pregnancy if the fetus poses a danger to the mother's health -- was banned by the US Congress in 2003, after lawmakers concluded it was not medically necessary.
The procedure involves pulling the fetus feet-first through the mother's partially dilated cervix and puncturing its skull to allow it to pass.
Some doctors say that such intact extractions are the safest for the woman, but opponents insist that other abortion methods can be just as effective.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the high court majority, wrote that the ban does not impose an "undue burden" since there were other options, such as making sure the fetus was not intact when it had to be extracted.
Anti-abortion activists hailed the watershed ruling and expressed hope that the decision eventually would pave the way to an outright ban on all abortions across the country.
"The time is now right to launch aggressive legal challenges across America to abortion on demand," Troy Newmann of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue said. "This is the first legal crack in the crumbling Roe vs Wade foundation, and is the first, necessary step toward banning the horrific practice of abortion in this nation."
For their part, "pro-choice" interests said they were fearful about the future of access to abortion.
"The door is now open for politicians like George W. Bush to interfere even more in our personal, private medical decisions," said Nancy Keenan, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a sharply worded dissent, called Wednesday's decision "alarming."
"It tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases," she said.
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