Gonzales v. Carhart

PETITIONER: Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General
RESPONDENT: Leroy Carhart et al.
LOCATION: Carhart's Residence

DOCKET NO.: 05-380
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 550 US 124 (2007)
GRANTED: Feb 21, 2006
ARGUED: Nov 08, 2006
DECIDED: Apr 18, 2007

Paul D. Clement - argued the cause for Petitioner
Priscilla J. Smith - argued the cause for Respondents

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 burden" on 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 authority" supports 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."


Is the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 an unconstitutional violation of personal liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment because the Act lacks an exception for partial-birth abortions necessary to protect the health of the mother?

Media for Gonzales v. Carhart

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 08, 2006 in Gonzales v. Carhart

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 18, 2007 in Gonzales v. Carhart

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has the opinion in 05-380, Gonzales versus Carhart and 05-1382, Gonzales versus Planned Parenthood Federation.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

These cases just been announced by the Chief Justice require us to consider that the validity of a Federal Statute regulates abortion procedures is been held invalid and decisions of the Courts of Appeals for the Eighth and Ninth Circuits.

The Act is called the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

The principle challenges to the Act are first that it is void for vagueness.

Second, that it poses an undue burden because it prohibits the most common second trimester abortion methods and third that it has no exception proving the health of the mother is at risk.

We know from recitations in the preamble of the Act enacted by the Congress that the legislation was in response to the invalidation of a somewhat similar statute enacted by the State of Nebraska.

The earlier state statute was invalidated by this court in Stenberg versus Carhart.

The federal statute now the force is more specific concerning the instances to which it applies so let us more precise.

A premise central to the joint opinion in Planned Parenthood versus Casey was that the government has a legitimate and substantial interest in promoting fetal life that premise would be repudiated were we to affirm the judgments of the Court of Appeals and so we reverse.

As the court did in Stenberg it is necessary in the opinion to explain a nature of abortion procedures used in the second trimester or even in later term abortions.

These matters are discussed in the opinion at some length and will not be rehearsed again here.

The two principle methods discussed are the dilation and evacuation of the so called D&E method and a variation of that procedure.

Now the variation has a different descriptions attached to it, we refer to it in the opinion as some doctors do as intact D&E.

In the federal statute the Act prohibits intact D&E.

We conclude the Act does not void for vagueness or over brought the Act does not apply unless the doctor has the intent or the outset both one, to deliver a fetus to certain anatomical landmarks and two to commit an additional overact other than completion of delivery that kills the partially delivered fetus.

These objectives standards provide doctors a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited.

We find the Act does not impose an undo burden by reason of its lack of an exception for protecting women’s health.

There is documented medical disagreement whether the Act’s probation would ever impose significant health risk on the woman.

The Court has given state and federal legislatures in other cases wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where this medical and scientific uncertainty exist, physicians are not entitled to ignore regulations that direct them to use reasonable alternative procedures.

Medical uncertainty does not foreclose the exercise of legislative power in the abortion context anymore than it does in other context.

Our decision in Stenberg was interpreted in the Courts of Appeals to leave no margin of error for legislatures to act in the face of medical uncertainty.

But a zero tolerance policy would strike down legitimate abortion regulations like the present one.

If some part of the medical community would disincline to follow the prescription and this is too exacting a standard.

Now it is objected that the intact D&E is little different from standard D&E so that the Act accomplishes little.

The act’s purposes demonstrate to us that the legislature was justified and concluding that the procedure should be prohibited.

The Act prescribes a method of abortion in which a fetus is killed just inches before completion of the birth process.

By prohibiting that procedure the Act expresses respect for the dignity of human life.

The government also has an interest in regulating the medical profession and protecting its integrity and ethics.

A central premise of the polarity opinion in Casey versus Planned Parenthood was that the court’s precedence in Roe and cases immediately following Roe had undervalued the states interest in potential human life.

In Casey the controlling opinion indicated that a law which serves a valid purpose cannot be declared void even if it has the incidental effect of making it more difficult and more expensive to procure an abortion.