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'Clinic' looks at abortion battle from both sides

Most Americans assume that a woman's right to get an abortion in this country has remained undiminished since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling established that constitutional protection. Wrong.

A lot has been going on in the abortion wars under the radar. From Mississippi to New Hampshire, ''Front-line" brings us up to speed tonight with its compelling look at the situation in ''The Last Abortion Clinic."

Anti-abortion rights forces, particularly in the South, have spearheaded the passage of more than 200 state regulations in the last 13 years limiting unrestricted abortions through devices like parental consent for a minor. (This is something plenty of pro-abortion rights parents with teenage daughters embrace, too.) In Mississippi, where some of the most aggressive antiabortion statutes have been enacted, there exists but one abortion clinic today, and its future is shaky.

In another arena, the newly constituted Supreme Court under neophyte Chief Justice John Roberts will hear a case from New Hampshire later this month, its first major abortion case in five years. Both sides agree the result could reshape the legal landscape on the issue.

''The Last Abortion Clinic" is written, directed, and produced by Raney Aronson, who gave us the excellent ''The Jesus Factor" last year, about the politics of religion for George Bush. There's no fat in this show. It's well-reported and, rare for ''Frontline," tightly pegged.

Aronson wisely focuses on lawyers from both sides who chart legal strategy in lieu of the tiresome extremists who compete for decibel dominance. Balance is always elusive, but the program is fair. It reminds us that such work would appear nowhere else on the small screen but public television.

The anti-abortion rights movement, it turns out, has been running a smart strategic campaign at the state level. The motto of Americans United for Life, the oldest national antiabortion organization, is ''Changing Law to Protect Human Life, State by State."

''The assault on abortion rights is very clever," says the owner of an unnamed abortion clinic in a neighboring state of Mississippi. (Names and location are omitted for security reasons.) ''And we are losing."

Nowhere is this clearer than in Mississippi. ''It's like even before Roe v. Wade for these poor women," says Pat White, an OB-GYN nurse who has worked for 30 years at public health clinics in the Mississippi Delta.

We follow the travails of the last Mississippi clinic, located in Jackson, and are brought inside the unnamed facility that performs abortions for many Mississippi women with nowhere else to go. There is grit and immediacy to all of this.

''The Last Abortion Clinic" also provides legal context critical to our grasp of the current battle. Roe established a trimester framework during pregnancy delineating abortion protections. This changed in 1992 with a Supreme Court decision in a Pennsylvania case that softened Roe's structure, requiring proof of ''substantial obstacles in the path of a woman seeking an abortion" before any such law could be invalidated. Armed with the new language, anti-abortion rights groups went to work in state legislatures.

It was in that Pennsylvania case that Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito upheld in his dissenting appellate opinion the portion of a Pennsylvania law generally requiring a wife to notify her husband of her intention to have an abortion. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court rejected his argument.

The ''Frontline" episode examines an important case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court on Nov. 30, Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. At issue is the scope of the health exemption for the mother of a fetus in a state law mandating that a minor notify her parents or get a judge's permission 48 hours before having an abortion. Traditionally, the exemption has been granted if there is risk to her health. In the New Hampshire statute, it is permitted only if her death is imminent.

Potentially more sweeping is the standard of review used to determine if an abortion-restriction law is constitutional. In the past, proof that a law would impose ''undue burden" on a substantial number of women would invalidate the whole statute. A new standard could make it harder for women to show such hardship.

The stakes are huge, and they're rendered more dramatic by the question mark of the Roberts court. This show reminds us that this issue never goes away. Whatever side of the abortion debate you're on, take an hour and watch it.

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