A revised Texas abortion law being scrutinized by the US Supreme Court has exposed splits among its eight remaining judges. The case could become a key issue amid the raucous US presidential election run-up.
The top US court, reduced to eight justices since last month's death of conservative Antonin Scalia, debated acrimoniously during 90 minutes of verbal arguments on Wednesday as supporters and opponents of abortion rights protested outside its Washington chamber.
The court, comprising four Democratic and four Republican judges appointed for life, was told by Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller that the imposition of a 2013 state law - which requires clinics to maintain hospital-like standards for outpatient surgery - had increased the "standard of care" required of doctors and clinics.
The attorney for the plaintiff, Whole Woman's Health, Stephanie Toti claimed that the law's imposition was "not justified medically and had forced the closure of half or about 20 clinics in Texas, making it harder for women to obtain abortions."
Outside the court, choice advocates said women in Texas - the USA's second biggest state - would end up driving hundreds of miles into New Mexico for abortions. Annually, about 70,000 abortions have taken place in Texas.
Opponents were addressed briefly by Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan who said the pro-life movement would "stand up for the unborn" and the rule of law.
Texas challenged by women judges
Texas' Keller was challenged by the court's three women judges and Justice Stephen Breyer on why the southern state had enacted its law change in 2013.
"What evidence is there that under the prior law, the prior law was not sufficiently protective of women's health?" asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Justice Kennedy swing vote?
All eyes were on Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose swing vote is widely expected to determine whether by June the court ends up split 4-4, meaning the Texan law would remain in place, or strike it down, if he sides with the liberals.
In 1992, he helped draft a ruling that struck down state restrictions that imposed an "undue burden" on a woman seeking an abortion.
The death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia could result in the court being split 4-4 on the Texas abortion case
On Wednesday, he voiced skepticism that the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence that Texas was trying to restrict abortions.
Backing from Obama administration
Pressing the Obama administration's backing for the Texas clinics, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. urged the Supreme Court to re-endorse the abortion right it last affirmed in 1992.
"If that right still does retain real substance, then this [Texan] law cannot stand," Verrilli told the justices.
President Barack Obama has said he will nominate a successor to Scalia. But Senate Republicans have pledged to keep Scalia's seat empty until the next president takes office in January 2017 when Obama's term will expire.
ipj/bw (AP, AFP, dpa)