Ruling Undermines Women’s Health and Equality
On April 18, 2007, the United States Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to women’s health, reproductive rights, and equality. In a 5-4 decision that puts politics before women’s health, the Court upheld the first-ever federal ban on abortion methods – called by its sponsors the “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.”
In upholding the ban, the Court undermined a core principle of Roe v. Wade – that women’s health must remain paramount. In the three decades since Roe, the Court has always demanded that abortion restrictions include protections for women’s health. Yet with its decision in Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America (a single decision referred to below as Carhart II), the Court upheld the federal ban despite the fact that it fails to contain a health exception.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy evoked antiquated notions of women’s place in society and called into question their decision-making ability. Furthermore, the Court held that in the face of “medical uncertainty” lawmakers could overrule a doctor’s medical judgment. In other words, the Court sanctioned placing medical decisions in the hands of politicians, not doctors. Notwithstanding the Court’s claim that it merely followed precedent, the Court’s ruling in Carhart II stands in stark contrast to one it made only seven years prior in a nearly identical case, Stenberg v. Carhart (Carhart I).
Additionally, and for the first time, the Court held that the “State’s interest in promoting respect for human life at all stages in the pregnancy” could outweigh the woman’s interest in protecting her own health. Again, this is a radical departure from more than 30 years of precedent holding unequivocally that women’s health interests outweigh any other State interests regardless of the stage of pregnancy. Here the Court’s language sets a dangerous precedent allowing politicians to endanger women’s health.
In an impassioned dissent, Justice Ginsburg attacked the majority for placing women’s health in danger and for undermining women’s struggle for equality. She wrote, women’s “ability to realize their full potential . . . is intimately connected to ‘their ability to control their reproductive lives.’” And she concluded that “the Act, and the Court’s defense of it, cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by the Court – and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives.”
The ACLU, acting on behalf of the National Abortion Federation and several individual physicians, brought one of three legal challenges to the federal ban. In each of those cases, the lower courts had struck down the ban, relying on clear precedent – now swept away by the Court’s decision in Carhart II – that prohibited the government from endangering women’s health when it regulates abortion. Below is a summary of the three cases.
THE LEGAL CHALLENGES TO THE FEDERAL BAN
National Abortion Federation v. Gonzales: The National Abortion Federation and seven individual physicians, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, the ACLU of Illinois, and the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed a legal challenge to the federal ban in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. That court struck down the ban “because it does not provide for an exception to protect the health of the mother.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, and then placed the case on hold once the Supreme Court agreed to hear the government’s appeal in Gonzales v. Carhart (see below). Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the ban, the Second Circuit lifted the injunction in this case.
Gonzales v. Carhart: Dr. LeRoy Carhart and three other physicians, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, filed a legal challenge to the federal ban in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska. That court struck down the law, in part, because it fails to include an exception to protect women’s health. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. The Department of Justice asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review this lower court ruling and, on November 8, 2006, the Court heard argument in the case, along with Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood (see below). The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on April 18, 2007, reversing the lower court rulings in both cases.
Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America: Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood of Golden Gate filed a legal challenge to the federal ban in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. That court struck down the ban, in part, because of the “omission of a health exception.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Department of Justice asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review this lower court ruling and, on November 8, 2006, the Court heard argument in the case, along with Gonzales v. Carhart (see above). The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on April 18, 2007, reversing the lower court rulings in both cases.
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