In an unusual move for the U.S. Justice Department, lawyers are siding with the state of Ohio and pro-life groups in defense of an Ohio law that outlaws partial-birth abortions.

Even pro-life groups were surprised by the move to stake out new territory in the legal battles over abortion before they reach the Supreme Court despite President Bush's clear stance on abortion issues.

"We're very pleased that the president has chosen to do that, particularly since we didn't ask them to," said Denise Mackura, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Right to Life organization.

"It's not the usual situation when a federal law is not involved ... because here there is no federal legislation involved in this litigation. It is only an Ohio statute," said Ronna Greff Schneider, a professor at the University of Cincinnati Law School.

"These are trauma to women. These are tough cases and they break everyone's hearts and they shouldn't be pawns in the hands of politicians," said Al Gerhardstein, an attorney for Ohio abortion providers.

Gerhardstein has gotten a permanent injunction against the Ohio law pending the outcome of the appeals court case.

"These are major league criminal laws ... designed to intimidate doctors from serving women, and that's why we go to litigation," he said.

Schneider said she suspects the Bush administration's interest in the Ohio case is based on the president's stated desire to develop a federal ban on partial-birth abortion, a procedure in which a late-term fetus is partially removed from the uterus so that doctors can reach in with pincers and crush the skull to allow the dead fetus to pass through the birth canal.

The Ohio law would allow the procedure only in a case in which the mother's health or life is at risk.

Pro-life groups predict victory in the Ohio cases, especially now that they believe they have an ally in the White House ready to fight in the courts.

"We have to ask ourselves as a country, are we willing to sacrifice one life at a certain point in the pregnancy so that the other can do what they want?" Mackura asked. "President Bush clearly understands the underlying problem we have in this country — the lack of respect for life."

Steve Brown is an author, radio broadcaster and seminary professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.