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Abortion debate kicks into high gear // ABORTION BAN VOTE

Lawmakers here are preparing to vote on a bill that would outlaw nearly all abortions in South Dakota, a measure that could become the most sweeping ban approved by any state in more than a decade, those on both sides of the abortion debate say.

If the bill passes a narrowly divided Senate in a vote expected Wednesday, and is signed by Gov. Michael Rounds, a Republican who opposes abortion, advocates of abortion rights have pledged to immediately challenge it in court - and that is precisely what the bill's supporters have in mind.

Optimistic about the new additions to the U.S. Supreme Court, some abortion opponents say they have new hope that a court fight over a ban here could lead to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal around the country.

"I'm convinced that the timing is right for this," said state Rep. Roger Hunt, a Republican who has sponsored the bill, noting the appointments of justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the court.

"The strong possibility of a third appointee sometime soon makes this all very real and very viable," Hunt added, a reference to conjecture that Justice John Paul Stevens, 85, might soon retire. "I think it will all culminate at the right time."

Supporters of the bill, which has already passed the House and a Senate committee, said they sensed encouraging signs from the Supreme Court.

Not since before 1992, when the Supreme Court reaffirmed a core right to abortion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, has a state legislature adopted a direct challenge to Roe, said Eve C. Gartner, a senior staff lawyer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Since 2005, bans similar to the bill have been proposed in at least five states, but those on both sides of the abortion debate say the effort here has the strongest chance of succeeding.

"While they are making political maneuvers, we're trying to fight for the women of South Dakota," said Kate Looby, the state director of Planned Parenthood in South Dakota.