Gonzales v. Carhart

Following is the case brief for Gonzales v. Carhart, United States Supreme Court, (2007)

Case summary for Gonzales v. Carhart:

  • After the passage of legislation banning partial-birth abortions, Dr. Carhart brought suit against the Attorney General claiming the legislation was unconstitutionally overbroad, because it failed to include an exception for the procedure when necessary to protect the health of the mother.
  • The lower courts found for Carhart and Gonzales petitioned to the Supreme Court.
  • The Court held that the legislation was constitutional, as the ban was both clear and narrow, and did not serve as an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion.

Gonzales v. Carhart Case Brief 

Statement of the facts:

President Bush enacted the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (PBABA) which prohibited the “intact dilation and evacuation” (intact D and E) method. This method permitted a surgeon to terminate the life of the fetus by entering the mother’s cervix, piercing its skull and extracting the fetus from the uterus during the second trimester.  Thirty states already had laws which prohibited this kind of procedure. Dr. Carhart, a man who performed intact abortion brought suit in federal court against the Gonzales, the attorney general. Carhart claimed the law was unconstitutionally broad as it lacked a health exception for partial-birth abortions when necessary to protect the health of the mother.

Procedural History:

The district court held the PBABA was unconstitutional. The court of appeals then affirmed and the Supreme Court heard the case.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Congress has the power to ban partial-birth abortions if restrictions on the practice are both narrow and clear, and the ban does not constitute an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to an abortion.

Issue and Holding:

Whether or not Congress may ban a specific partial birth abortion provided the restrictions on the practice are both narrow and clear, and the ban does not equate to an “undue burden” on the woman’s right to an abortion? Yes.

Judgment:

The judgment of the court of appeals is reversed.

Reasoning:

Prior to viability, the state cannot prevent a woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy. The state is prohibited from imposing an “undue burden” on the woman seeking an abortion.

An undue burden exists when the purpose or effect of government regulation is to put a substantial obstacle in the way of a woman seeking an abortion pre-viability. If the regulation creates structural mechanisms by which the state or parent/guardian of a minor can show profound respect for the unborn life, the regulation is permitted if the regulation does not serve as a substantial obstacle to a woman’s right to choose.

Dr. Carhart claims the PBABA is too vague and therefore void due to the undefined scope of the legislation. The PBABA prevents only narrow and specific types of partial-birth abortions. In addition, it defines the criminal offense involving performance of the prohibited procedure with sufficient definiteness so that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited. In addition, Dr. Carhart asserts that the PBABA imposes an undue burden on a woman’s rights to an abortion since its restrictions on second-trimester abortions are overly broad.

The PBABA bans intact D and E abortions only and contains no prescription of D and E procedures that remove the fetus in parts nor does it ban Intact D and E procedures that are accidentally performed.  As a result, both of these arguments fail.

Congress passed the legislation out of a desire for women to make an informed decision in aborting a fetus and a profound respect for human life.  The decision of the lower court is reversed and the PBABA is not unconstitutional.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Concurring (Thomas):

Since neither the parties or lower courts raised the issue of whether the PBABA is a permissible exercise of Congresses power, the majority should not have considered the issue.

Dissenting (Ginsburg):

Today’s decision is a misapplication of the precedents outlined in Casey along with other abortion jurisprudence. In addition, the majority’s decision blurs the line between pre-viability and post-viability abortions as the point of viability has previously been upheld as defining when a woman’s interest in obtaining an abortion is outweighed by the state’s interest in preserving the life of the unborn fetus.

Blurring this point negates a sufficient body of jurisprudence defining the right to an abortion according to the point of viability. Ginsberg held that the majority’s decision to uphold a regulation of a woman’s right to an abortion that contains no exception for safeguarding a woman’s health is troubling.  The absence of a health exception constitutes an undue burden on the right of a woman to seek an abortion under Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

Significance:

Gonzales v. Carhart as a landmark case established the current precedent for the test applied regarding a woman’s right to an abortion. The government ban cannot constitute an “undue burden” on the woman seeking an abortion. If it does, then the procedure is unconstitutional.

Student Resources:

https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/05-380.ZS.html
http://www.nytimes.com/ref/washington/scotuscases_ABORTION.html

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