Supreme Court Upholds Abortion Rights, Saying States May Not Endanger Women's Health

June 28, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — In a resounding triumph for abortion rights, the Supreme Court today struck down Nebraska’s ban on so-called “partial-birth abortion.” Unambiguously reaffirming a woman’s constitutional right of reproductive choice, the Court underscored that the state may not regulate abortion in a way that endangers women’s health. In addition, the Court recognized that the ban would prohibit an array of safe and common abortion procedures and invalidated the law on this ground as well.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in Stenberg v. Carhart, representing abortion providers in support of Dr. Carhart, applauded the Court’s reaffirmation of the primacy of women’s health in any regulation of abortion.

“Today’s decision sends a clear message to lawmakers throughout the country that they cannot disregard women’s health when drafting abortion laws,” said Catherine Weiss, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “Moreover, it makes clear that doctors, not legislators, should be making medical decisions.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer said: “Our cases have repeatedly invalidated statutes that in the process of regulating the methods of abortion, impose significant health risks. … [W]here substantial medical authority supports the proposition that banning a particular abortion procedure could endanger women’s health, [the Constitution] requires the statute to include a health exception.” Neither the Nebraska ban nor its dozens of look-alikes throughout the country contains an exception to protect the woman’s health.

Thirty other states have enacted bans similar to Nebraska’s. Medical providers have challenged these laws in 21 states, and in 19 of these the courts have blocked or limited their enforcement. None of the challenged bans would withstand scrutiny under today’s ruling.

Joining the overwhelming majority of lower courts to have ruled on this issue, the Supreme Court also denounced the Nebraska ban’s sweeping prohibition on safe and common abortion methods as depriving women of their constitutional rights.

Rejecting the state’s claim that Nebraska’s ban prohibits only one procedure, the Court found that “its language makes clear that it also covers a much broader category of procedures” and thereby unduly burdens a woman’s right to choose abortion.

The Court recognized the deceptive nationwide “partial-birth abortion” campaign for what it is: as Justice Ginsburg warned in her concurring opinion, in enacting these bans “State legislators seek to chip away at the private choice shielded by Roe v. Wade.”

Today’s ruling marks the first time since 1992 that the Court has decided a major abortion case. In the intervening years, anti-choice forces have waged a steady campaign to eliminate abortion rights by imposing more and more restrictions on providers and placing more and more obstacles in the paths of women seeking abortions.

“Of course, no Supreme Court decision ever has or ever will stop anti-choice extremists from plotting to eliminate abortion rights,” cautioned Caitlin Borgmann, state strategies coordinator for the Reproductive Freedom Project. “Today’s sharply divided 5-4 decision demonstrates that the right to reproductive choice is far from secure.”

“The Supreme Court is the proper guardian of women’s constitutional right to make their own decisions about their pregnancies,” said Weiss. “In the face of the unrelenting campaign to abolish the right to reproductive freedom, we need to make sure that the Court stands ready to protect the right for future generations.”

The case is Stenberg v. Carhart, No. 99-830. A copy of the Supreme Court decision can be found at:

The ACLU’s brief in the case can be found at:

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