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Law School Case Brief

Gonzales v. Carhart - 550 U.S. 124, 127 S. Ct. 1610 (2007)


The government may use its voice and its regulatory authority to show its profound respect for the life within a woman. A central premise of the United States Supreme Court's Casey opinion was that the Court's precedents after Roe had undervalued the State's interest in potential life. The plurality opinion indicated the fact that a law which serves a valid purpose, one not designed to strike at the right itself, has the incidental effect of making it more difficult or more expensive to procure an abortion cannot be enough to invalidate it. This was not an idle assertion. The three premises of Casey must coexist. The third premise, that the State, from the inception of the pregnancy, maintains its own regulatory interest in protecting the life of the fetus that may become a child, cannot be set at naught by interpreting Casey's requirement of a health exception so it becomes tantamount to allowing a doctor to choose the abortion method he or she might prefer. Where it has a rational basis to act, and it does not impose an undue burden, the State may use its regulatory power to bar certain procedures and substitute others, all in furtherance of its legitimate interests in regulating the medical profession in order to promote respect for life, including life of the unborn. 


Following the Court's Stenberg v. Carhart, 530 U.S. 914, 120 S. Ct. 2597, 147 L. Ed. 2d 743, decision that Nebraska's "partial birth abortion" statute violated the Federal Constitution, as interpreted in Planned Parenthood  of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 112 S. Ct. 2791, 120 L. Ed. 2d 674, and Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, Congress passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 ("Act") to proscribe a particular method of ending fetal life in the later stages of pregnancy. In No. 05-380 (Carhart) respondents LeRoy Carhart, William G. Fitzhugh, William H. Knorr, and Jill L. Vibhakar, doctors who performed second-trimester abortions, filed suit in federal district court challenging the Act's constitutionality on its face. The district court granted a permanent injunction prohibiting petitioner Alberto R. Gonzales, the Attorney General of the United States, from enforcing the Act in all cases but those in which there was no dispute the fetus was viable. The court found the Act unconstitutional because it: (1) lacked an exception allowing the prohibited procedure where necessary for the mother's health, and; (2) covered not merely intact "dilation and evacuation" ("D&E") procedures but also other D&Es. Affirming, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit found that a lack of consensus existed in the medical community as to the banned procedure's necessity, and thus Stenberg required legislatures to err on the side of protecting women's health by including a health exception. In No. 05-1382, respondent abortion advocacy groups brought suit challenging the Act. The district court enjoined the Attorney General from enforcing the Act, concluding it was unconstitutional on its face because it: (1) unduly burdened a woman's ability to choose a second-trimester abortion; (2) was too vague, and; (3) lacked a health exception as required by Stenberg. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed and affirmed.


Was the Act unconstitutional on its face?




The Supreme Court of the United States applied the Casey standard, which included the central premise that the Government had a legitimate, substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life. The Court concluded that this premise would be repudiated if it affirmed the judgments. The Court held that the Act, on its face, was not void for vagueness and did not impose an undue burden from any overbreadth. The Court rejected respondents' contention that the scope of the Act was indefinite. The Act clearly proscribed performing only the intact D&E procedure. Further, the Act's scienter requirement narrowed the scope of the Act's prohibition and limited prosecutorial discretion. The restrictions on second-trimester abortions were not too broad because the Act provided specific anatomical landmarks and included an overt-act requirement. The Court also held that the Act's failure to allow the banned procedure's use where necessary for the mother's health did not have the effect of imposing an unconstitutional burden of the abortion right because safe medical options were available. The Court found that the proper means to consider exceptions was by as-applied rather than facial challenges.

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