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Law School Case Brief

Planned Parenthood v. Danforth - 428 U.S. 52, 96 S. Ct. 2831 (1976)

Rule:

A state may not constitutionally require the consent of the spouse as a condition for abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The state cannot delegate to a spouse a veto power which the state itself is absolutely and totally prohibited from exercising during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Facts:

Plaintiffs, two Missouri-licensed physicians, one of whom performs abortions at hospitals and the other of whom supervises abortions at Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri, brought suit for injunctive and declaratory relief challenging the constitutionality of the Missouri abortion statute; specifically attacked were (1) a viability definition provision defining "viability," for purposes of a provision that no abortion not necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother should be performed unless the attending physician would certify with reasonable medical certainty that the fetus is not viable, as that stage of fetal development when the life of the unborn child may be continued indefinitely outside the womb by natural or artificial life-supportive systems, (2) a pregnant woman's consent provision, requiring that a woman, prior to submitting to an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, must certify in writing her consent to the procedure and that her consent is informed, freely given, and not the result of coercion, (3) a spousal consent provision, requiring the prior written consent of the spouse of a woman seeking an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, unless the abortion were certified by a physician to be necessary for preservation of the mother's life, (4) a parental consent provision, requiring, with respect to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy where the pregnant woman is unmarried and under 18 years of age, the written consent of a parent or person in loco parentis unless the abortion were certified by a physician as necessary for preservation of the mother's life, (5) a saline amniocentesis prohibition provision, describing the saline amniocentesis technique of abortion as one whereby the amniotic fluid is withdrawn and a saline or other fluid is inserted into the amniotic sac, and prohibiting such method of abortion after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, (6) recordkeeping and reporting provisions, imposing requirements upon health facilities and physicians concerned with abortions irrespective of the pregnancy stage, and (7) a standard of care provision, declaring, in its first sentence, that no person who performs or induces an abortion shall fail to exercise that degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health of the fetus which such person would be required to exercise in order to preserve the life and health of any fetus intended to be born and not aborted, and providing, in its second sentence, that any physician or person assisting in an abortion who failed to take such measures to encourage or sustain the life of the child would be deemed guilty of manslaughter if the child's death resulted. The District Court ruled that the two physicians had "obvious standing" to maintain the suit and that it was therefore unnecessary to determine if Planned Parenthood also had standing. On the merits, the district court upheld the foregoing provisions with the exception of § 6(1)'s professional-skill requirement, which was held to be "unconstitutionally overbroad" because it failed to exclude the pregnancy stage prior to viability.

Issue:

Was the spousal consent provision requiring the prior written consent of the spouse of a woman seeking an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, unless the abortion were certified by a physician to be necessary for preservation of the mother's life, constitutional?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

On direct appeal, the United States Supreme Court held that (1) the viability definition provision, which reflected the fact that the determination of viability, varying with each pregnancy, was a matter for the judgment of the responsible attending physician, was not unconstitutional, since it did not circumvent the permissible limitations on state regulation of abortions, (2) the pregnant woman's consent provision was not unconstitutional since the state could validly require a pregnant woman's prior written consent for an abortion to assure awareness of the abortion decision and its significance, and (3) the recordkeeping and reporting provisions were not constitutionally offensive in themselves and imposed no legally significant impact or consequence on the abortion decision or on the physician-patient relationship; expressing the view of six members of the court, that (4) the spousal consent provision was unconstitutional, since the state, being unable to regulate or proscribe abortions during the first stage of pregnancy when a physician and patient make such decision, could not delegate authority to any particular person, even a pregnant woman's spouse, to prevent abortion during the first stage of pregnancy, (5) the first sentence of the standard of care provision was unconstitutional, since it impermissibly required a physician to preserve the life and health of a fetus, whatever the stage of the pregnancy, such unconstitutional first sentence not being severable from the second sentence establishing manslaughter for violation of the standard of care, notwithstanding that the Missouri statute contained a severability provision; and, expressing the view of five members of the court, that (6) the parental consent provision was unconstitutional, since the state did not have the constitutional authority to give a third party an absolute, and possibly arbitrary, veto over the decision of a physician and his patient to terminate the patient's pregnancy, regardless of the reason for withholding the consent, and (7) the saline amniocentesis prohibition provision was unconstitutional since it failed as a reasonable regulation for the protection of maternal health, being instead an unreasonable or arbitrary regulation designed to inhibit the vast majority of abortions after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

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