A controversial medical procedure labelled “partial birth abortion” by its critics has been made illegal in the United States.

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The laws, signed-off by President George W Bush, are the most far-reaching restrictions on abortion in three decades.

“For years, a terrible form of violence has been directed against children who are inches from birth while the law looked the other way,” Mr Bush said as he signed the ban.

The procedure is usually performed in the second or third trimester where a foetus is partially delivered before being terminated.

The law’s sponsors say the medical procedure happens roughly 2,200 times a year, normally during the 20th through to the 26th weeks of a pregnancy.

But there is widespread concern that the definition of the procedure is too broad and could ban safe and common procedures.

This bill marks a concerted effort to set back decades of progress in achieving reproductive freedom,” said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Ms Feldt represents one of the groups filing a suit against the law.

In a rare pre-emptive strike three advocacy groups filed federal suits in San Francisco, Nebraska and New York City even before President Bush signed the bill.

Democratic presidential candidates have also poured scorn on the ban with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts calling the law “a step backwards for women.”

The passing of the bill is seen to be a boost to President Bush among conservatives on the eve of an election year. Former Democrat President Bill Clinton vetoed similar versions in the 1990s.

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