Gonzales v. Carhart Case Brief

Facts of the case

In 2003, Congress passed and the President signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The controversial concept of partial-birth abortion is defined in the Act as any abortion in which the death of the fetus occurs when the entire fetal head […] or […] any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother.Dr. Leroy Carhart and other physicians who perform late-term abortions sued to stop the Act from going into effect. The plaintiffs argued that the Act could apply to a more common abortion procedure known as D&E(dilation and evacuation), as well as to the less common intact D&E,sometimes called D&X (dilation and extraction). With this application the Act would ban most late-term abortions and thus be an unconstitutional undue burdenon the right to an abortion, as defined by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey . The plaintiffs also argued that the Act’s lack of an exception for abortions necessary to protect the health of the mother rendered it unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s decision in Stenberg v. Carhart , regardless of Congress’s finding in the Act that partial-birth abortions are never medically necessary.A federal District Court agreed and ruled the Act unconstitutional on both grounds. The government appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The government argued that the Act only bans a narrow category of abortion procedures, and that a health exception is not required when Congress determines that a banned abortion procedure is never necessary for the health of the mother. The Eighth Circuit disagreed and upheld the District Court, ruling that a health exception is required for all bans on abortion procedures when substantial medical authoritysupports the necessity of the procedure. The Circuit Court ruled that the ongoing disagreement among medical experts over the necessity of intact D&E abortions was sufficient to establish that the Act was unconstitutional without a health exception. The Circuit Court did not reach the question of whether the Act was so broad as to qualify as an unconstitutional undue burden.

Why is the case important?

A federal statute was passed that bans so-called partial-birth abortions.?&nbsp Its constitutionality was challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment.


Is the federal nationwide ban on so-called partial-birth abortions constitutional?


(Kennedy, J.)? Yes.? The federal nationwide ban on so-called “partial-birth abortions” is constitutional.? The 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act avoids vagueness problems by spelling out “anatomical landmarks” on the fetal body and setting physician intent requirements that provide reasonable notice of the particular abortion procedures prohibited.? The plaintiffs failed to demonstrate “that requiring doctos to intend dismemberment before delivery to an anatomical landmark will prohibit the vast majority of D&amp E abortions.”? The statute does apply both previability and postviability because, by common understanding and scientific terminology, a fetus is a living organism while within the womb, whether it is viable outside of the womb or not.? But, under Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 506 U.S. 833 (1992), which reaffirmed a woman’s right to choose an abortion previability, the issue in this facial challenge was whether the statute imposed a substantial obstacle to late-term, but previability abortions.? Casey recognized the state’s interest “in protecting the life of the fetus that may become a child.”? That interest allows the state to restrict abortion methods that doctors might otherwise choose, “in order to promote respect for life.”? The health exception recognized in Casey and Stenberg cannot be interpreted in a way to “set at naught” the government’s interest in fetal life.? Here, there is “documented disagreement whether the Act’s prohibition would ever impose significant health risks on women.”? When medical uncertainty is present, the Court defers to legislative choice.? In addition, the mother’s health exception requirement cannot be interpreted to preclude regulation of abortion methods that further the government’s interest in protecting and respecting fetal life when there is only uncertainty in the medical community about whether a specific abortion method is ever medically necessary.? In this case, Congress sought to promote respect for life by drawing a bright line between abortion and infanticide.? The statute also recognizes “the bond of love the mother has for her child” by saving her from the sorrow of undergoing what she may not be told until later is a gruesome procedure.? The Act is not invalid on its face.


The Supreme Court of the United States applied the Casey standard, which included the central premise that the Government had a legitimate, substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life. The Court concluded that this premise would be repudiated if it affirmed the judgments. The Court held that the Act, on its face, was not void for vagueness and did not impose an undue burden from any overbreadth. The Court rejected respondents’ contention that the scope of the Act was indefinite. The Act clearly proscribed performing only the intact D&E procedure. Further, the Act’s scienter requirement narrowed the scope of the Act’s prohibition and limited prosecutorial discretion. The restrictions on second-trimester abortions were not too broad because the Act provided specific anatomical landmarks and included an overt-act requirement. The Court also held that the Act’s failure to allow the banned procedure’s use where necessary for the mother’s health did not have the effect of imposing an unconstitutional burden of the abortion right because safe medical options were available. The Court found that the proper means to consider exceptions was by as-applied rather than facial challenges.

  • Advocates: Paul D. Clement argued the cause for Petitioner Priscilla J. Smith argued the cause for Respondents
  • Petitioner: Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General
  • Respondent: Leroy Carhart et al.
  • DECIDED BY:Roberts Court
  • Location: Carhart’s Residence
Citation: 550 US 124 (2007)
Granted: Feb 21, 2006
Argued: Nov 8, 2006
Decided: Apr 18, 2007
Gonzales v. Carhart Case Brief