Burns v. Alcala

PETITIONER: Kevin J. Burns, Commissioner, Dept of Social Services of Iowa, et al.
RESPONDENT: Linda Alcala, Jane Doe, Joan Roe, et al.
LOCATION: Scott County Department of Social Services

DOCKET NO.: 73-1708
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 420 US 575 (1975)
ARGUED: Jan 22, 1975
DECIDED: Mar 18, 1975
GRANTED: Oct 15, 1974

Robert Bartels - for respondents
Robert L. Shevin -
Richard C. Turner - for petitioners

Facts of the case

The State of Iowa denied Linda Alcala and several other pregnant women welfare benefits for their unborn children. The Department of Social Services stated that although those children would be eligible for benefits once born, while unborn they do not fit the Social Security Act’s definition of “dependent children” as required by the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The pregnant women sued, arguing that the denial of benefits conflicted with federal Social Security standards and violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court held that unborn children were “dependent children”, but did not reach the 14th Amendment arguments. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.


(1) Do unborn children fall within the definition of “dependent children” under the Social Security Act?

(2) Does the denial of welfare benefits for unborn children violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Media for Burns v. Alcala

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 22, 1975 in Burns v. Alcala

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments first today in number 73-1708, Burns against Alcala.

Mr. Attorney General, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Richard C. Turner:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

Burns, the Commissioner of the Department of Social Services of the State of Iowa against Linda Alcala, Jane Doe and Joan Roe, is here on cert from the Eighth Circuit which upheld the decision of Judge Hanson in the Southern District of Iowa in a case of statutory construction of the Social Welfare Act that an unborn child or a mother of an unborn child is entitled to AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

It involves Titles IV and V of the Social Security Act passed by the 74th Congress in 1935.

Title IV being -- pertaining to ADC or later AFDC and Title V pertaining to Maternal and Child Health Care.

I would first like to quote to the Court part of the relevant statutes 602, Title 42 of the U.S. Code Section 602 (a) (10) which says that aid in a -- if a state has ADC and of course a states does not have to have a program as I understand of Aid to the Dependent Children but all including Iowa do, it must furnish with reasonable promptness.

It says that Aid to Families with Dependent Children shall be furnished with reasonable promptness to all eligible individuals.

In this case, the plaintiffs were three unmarried pregnant women without children and otherwise qualified for ADC.

They have no employment.

They were without any savings.

They made application for AFDC for their unborn children.

Then if I may state the issues which I think are present here.

First, the question is, is a pregnant woman a mother before her child is born?

Second, is she prior to birth a parent within the meaning of the statute?

If she has no obligation to support her child in regard to diet, nutrition and things to that kind --

Warren E. Burger:

When you say obligation, do you mean legal obligation?

Richard C. Turner:

Yes, sir.

A legal obligation or duty if she has none, King versus Smith which pertains to a substitute father without a legal obligation and still another decision of this Court which pertained to a stepfather who had not adopted his child and was held to have no legal obligation was held not to be a parent.

Following that logic and been perhaps that stretching logic to extremes, the mother is not a parent if she has no duty to support the fetus.

Now, Judge Pell's dissent in a case of Wilson versus Weaver which I believe was out of the Third Circuit involving cases from Illinois and Indiana indicated that neither a parent, neither mother or father is a parent before birth and that even the real father has no duty to support the unborn child before it's born.

So, one of the questions here is whether perhaps if a woman has a right to abort her child she can be said to have a duty to support her fetus.

But let's assume for that the pregnant woman is a parent before birth, are the woman and her fetus together a family?

I submit not.

Not in the ordinary sense of the meaning of that word and it is families which are to be furnished this aid with reasonable promptness.

Does it need the pregnant woman derive a right to ADC from a fetus and the ultimate question then here before us?

Is a fetus a dependent child?

Now, dependent child in the AFDC law is a defined term.

In Section 606 for what would be 406 of the Act but 606 of the United States Code when used in this part the term “dependent child” means a needy child one who has been deprived of parental support or by reason of the death continued absence from the home or physical or mental incapacity of a parent and who is living with his father, mother, grandfather, grandmother and a whole series of relatives.

In other words, if the child is not living with one of those relatives including the father and mother in a residence maintained by one or more of such relatives as his or their own home.