Webster v. Reproductive Health Services

Following is the case brief for Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989)

Case Summary of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services:

  • The State of Missouri enacted a law restricting abortions.
  • Four sections of the law most relevant were:  (i) a preamble stating that life begins at conception; (ii) a restriction on the use of public facilities for abortions where the mother’s life is not at risk; (iii) a restriction on counseling about abortion; and (iv) a requirement to perform viability tests on women who are in their 20th week.
  • The District Court and the Eighth Circuit struck down the four sections as in violation of Roe v. Wade.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and, in a fractured plurality decision, allowed the restrictions while claiming to leave Roe limited but undisturbed.

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

In 1986, the State of Missouri passed a law that put serious limits on abortion.  Four sections of the law most relevant were as follows:

  1. The preamble to the law stated that the “life of each human being begins at conception.”
  2. A restriction that public employees and public facilities could not be used to perform or assist in abortions that were not necessary to save the life of the mother.
  3. A prohibition against encouraging or counseling people to have an abortion.
  4. A requirement that physicians must perform viability tests on women who were in their 20th week of pregnancy.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court struck down the four sections of the law, as well as other sections, and enjoined their enforcement.
  • The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the provisions violated the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Did the Missouri anti-abortion law unconstitutionally interfere with Missouri citizens’ right to privacy or due processNo.

Judgment:

The decision of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The Constitution does not create an affirmative right to government aid such as an abortion.  It only provides that a government may not deprive an individual of life, liberty, or property.  Thus, States may place restrictions on abortion provided it does not infringe on the fundamental holding of Roe v. Wade.

Reasoning:

The Court’s reasoning for each relevant section for the Missouri law was as follows:

  1. Preamble: There is no need to pass on the constitutionality of the preamble because it does not, in itself, regulate abortion.  Only when the preamble is used to restrict abortion in violation of the Court’s decision in Roe does there need to be a decision on its constitutionality.
  2. No Public Assistance Unless Mother’s Life at Risk: Restricting public assistance with abortions when the life of the mother is not at risk does not violate the Constitution or the Court’s decision in Roe.  Due process does not force a State to give government aid.  Rather, it just mandates that a government does not deprive an individual of life, liberty, or property.
  3. No Counseling or Encouraging Abortions: Because of the way the issue of counseling on abortion came to this Court, and because the litigants no longer have a controversy on the point, the issue is moot.
  4. Viability Testing: The requirement that doctors determine the viability of any pregnancy at 20 weeks is constitutional because it furthers the State’s interest in protecting potential human life.

Notably, the Court had a majority for the reasoning on the first three sections.  There was only a plurality for the opinion regarding the last section.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring in Part (O’Connor):

The preamble does not affect a woman’s decision to have an abortion.  Further, previous decisions on state or federal funding of abortions supports the second section of the bill in question, and the issue is moot as to the third section.  Finally, the viability testing requirement does not conflict with any of the Court’s prior decisions, thus Roe does not need to be reexamined in that context.

Concurring in Part (Scalia):

Roe should be explicitly overturned.  The Court’s decision today tries hard to avoid doing so, or making any important decision whatsoever.  That is less judicial statesmanship, and more prolonging the Court’s interference in an area in which it should remove itself.

Concurring in Part, Dissenting in Part (Blackmun):

Roe, providing the fundamental constitutional right of women to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, survives the Court’s decision, but it is not secure.  While a State still cannot enact a law that inhibits a woman from exercising her right to an abortion, the Court’s plurality implicitly allows States to put more and more restrictions on abortion until Roe is essentially destroyed.  “The plurality opinion is filled with winks, and nods, and knowing glances to those who would do away with Roe explicitly.”

Concurring in Part, Dissenting in Part (Stevens):

The preamble violates the Constitution because it will have a substantive impact on the freedom to use contraceptive procedures, inconsistent with Griswold v. Connecticut.  Also, if it is just a legislative finding without operative effect, then it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it is making a theological “finding.”

Significance:

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services is a landmark decision because it falls in the line of the Court’s string of abortion decisions since Roe.  While the Court’s decision purports to leave Roe “undisturbed,” it is clear that the decision demonstrates the tension between the desire of the conservative justices on the Court to do away with Roe, and the Court’s attempt to honor past decisions – Roe being one of the most significant.  Justice Blackmun’s strong and stirring dissent seems to say it best – that the Court’s decision is a signal of more chipping away at Roe into the future.  Coming from Justice Blackmun, the author of Roe, that warning is well taken.  Based on more recent additions to the Court, that warning seems to be coming true.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

 

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