The procedure in question in the current cases, Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood, is called by critics "partial birth" abortion and is medically known as "intact dilation and extraction," or "D & X," and usually occurs in the second trimester of pregnancy. A doctor partially delivers a fetus, then suctions out its brain and collapses its skull to permit the head to exit.
The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health organization affiliated with Planned Parenthood, has called the procedure rare and said only 2,200 were performed in 2000, but advocates of the ban say the number is much higher.
Four liberal justices are considered certain votes against the law, according to legal analysts, and four conservatives are expected to uphold it, although it is unclear how far they will go towards rolling back the established precedent on abortion, Roe v. Wade. Many expect Justice Anthony Kennedy, the 70-year-old centrist with a multifaceted record on abortion, to be the deciding vote.
In a dissenting opinion to the 2000 Stenberg v. Carhart decision that struck down a state ban on the procedure because there was no exception for the health of the mother, Kennedy called D & X "a procedure many decent and civilized people find so abhorrent as to be among the most serious of crimes against human life."
Full audio of today's oral arguments