Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc.

PETITIONER: Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General
RESPONDENT: Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., et al.
LOCATION: Juneau-Douglas High School

DOCKET NO.: 05-1382
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 550 US 124 (2007)
GRANTED: Jun 19, 2006
ARGUED: Nov 08, 2006
DECIDED: Apr 18, 2007

Eve C. Gartner - argued the cause for Respondents
Paul D. Clement - argued the cause for Petitioner

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."

Planned Parenthood sued the Attorney General of the United States, arguing that the Act was unconstitutional under the right to an abortion protected by the substantive component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade and subsequent cases. The District Court agreed and stopped the Act from going into effect.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. Though the government claimed that the Act banned only a narrow, rare category of abortions, the Circuit Court ruled that the Act applied to the common abortion procedure known as "D&E" ("dilation and evacuation"), as well as to the far less common "intact D&E," sometimes called "D&X" ("dilation and extraction"). This made the ban expansive enough to qualify as an unconstitutional "undue burden" on the right to abortion, as defined in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

The Ninth Circuit also ruled that the Act's lack of an exception for abortions necessary to protect the health of the mother rendered it unconstitutional. Congress had included in the Act a finding that partial-birth abortions were never medically necessary, but the Ninth Circuit held that the Supreme Court's decision in Stenberg v. Carhart required the health exception in all cases where medical opinion on the necessity an abortion procedure is divided.

Finally, the Circuit Court ruled that the Act was unconstitutionally vague, because the inclusion of ambiguous statutory terms such as "partial-birth abortion" would prevent physicians from knowing which methods of abortion were covered. The Circuit Court determined that the proper course of action was to block enforcement of the entire Act.


Is the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment because it lacks an exception for partial-birth abortions necessary to protect the health of the mother or because it is unconstitutionally vague?

Media for Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 08, 2006 in Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 18, 2007 in Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc.

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.