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Abortion debate kicks into high gear // SUPREME COURT HEARING

The Supreme Court, at full strength with Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. on the bench for the first time, opened the next chapter in its long-running confrontation with abortion on Tuesday by agreeing to decide whether the first federal ban on a method of abortion is constitutional.

The court accepted, for argument next fall, the Bush administration's appeal of a decision invalidating the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. The law makes it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion during which a portion of the fetus, either the "entire fetal head" or "any part of the fetal trunk past the navel," is outside the woman's uterus at the time the fetus is killed.

While the law's supporters maintain that this technique is used only late in pregnancy, abortion rights advocates say the statute's description applies to procedures used to terminate pregnancies as early as 12 or 13 weeks.

The law makes an exception for instances in which the banned technique is necessary to save a pregnant woman's life, but not for preservation of her health, as the Supreme Court found necessary six years ago when it overturned a similar law from Nebraska.

In the federal statute, Congress included a "finding" that "partial-birth abortion is never medically indicated to preserve the health of the mother."

The trial judge, Richard G. Kopf, who had earlier found the Nebraska law unconstitutional, said the plaintiffs had demonstrated that the congressional findings were "unreasonable." He declared the federal law unconstitutional in a 269-page opinion, issued in September 2004. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld that decision last July, leading to the administration's Supreme Court appeal, Gonzales vs. Carhart, No. 05-380.

Also Tuesday, the justices . . .

+ Ruled 8-0 that a small branch of a South American religious sect may use hallucinogenic tea as part of a ritual intended to connect with God.

+ Unanimously overturned an appeals court decision that said a white chicken plant manager could not be sued for calling black employees "boys."

+ Heard arguments in cases that test the Clean Water Act, from Maine and Michigan.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.