Harris v. McRae

LOCATION: Congress

DOCKET NO.: 79-1268
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)

CITATION: 448 US 297 (1980)
ARGUED: Apr 21, 1980
DECIDED: Jun 30, 1980

Rhonda Copelon - Argued the cause for the appellees
Wade H. McCree, Jr. - Argued the cause for the appellant

Facts of the case

In 1965, Congress established the Medicaid program, via Title XIX of the Social Security Act, to provide federal financial assistance to states that chose to reimburse certain costs of medical treatment for needy persons. Beginning in 1976, Congress passed a number of versions of the "Hyde Amendment" that severely limited the use of federal funds to reimburse the cost of abortions under the Medicaid program. Cora McRae, a pregnant Medicaid recipient, challenged the Amendment and took action against Patricia R. Harris, Secretary of Health and Human Services.


Did the Hyde Amendment violate the right to privacy, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, or the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment?

Media for Harris v. McRae

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 21, 1980 in Harris v. McRae

Warren E. Burger:

The Court will hear arguments first this morning in 78-1268, Harris v. McRae.

Mr. Solicitor General, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Wade H. McCree, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

At the outset it might be helpful to state what this appeal concerns and what it does not concern.

At page 291 of its opinion, the District Court said the inquiry here is not what is wise policy but whether the Congress has or has not adopted a policy which, wise or unwise, the law forbids.

We submit that this is the proper approach to the case and that the voluminous evidence in the preceding 290 pages of the opinion would be useful in forming and informing a legislative judge but not especially helpful when we address the constitutionality of the Hyde amendment.

We regard the issues as two - First, whether the Hyde amendment violates the equal protection component of the due process clause by authorizing federal funds for medically necessary services generally and for abortions only when the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term but not for other medically necessary abortions and, second, whether by restricting the availability of federal funds for medically necessary abortions the Hyde amendment deprives pregnant women of the liberty protected by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment or the religious freedom protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Title 19 of the Social Security Act, commonly called the Medicaid Act, is a cooperative program under which the federal government provides financial assistance to the states that choose to reimburse the categorically need and optionally the medically needy for the costs of medical services in at least five categories.

These categories are in-patient hospital services, out-patient hospital services, other Laboratory and x-ray services, skilled nursing services, periodic screening and diagnostic services, children and family planning and physician services.

The act does not expressly require participating states to pay for abortions or for any other specified medical procedures.

The Hyde amendment comes into the picture in this fashion - In December 1977, in a joint resolution providing appropriations for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for the last ten months of fiscal year 1978, Congress modified an earlier version of the Hyde amendment to include these exceptions to the general prohibition against abortions, necessary medical procedure for victims of incest and rape -- excuse me, I have misstated myself.

I would like leave to say that initially, in September 1976, Congress, by the so-called Hyde amendment, limited the availability of funds to reimburse the costs of medically indicated or therapeutic abortions by providing that none of the funds contained in the act should be used to perform abortions except when the life of the mother would be endangered by carrying the fetus to term.

This original Hyde Amendment has been subsequently amended.

It has been amended to add a second exception to the one where the mother's life would be endangered by carrying the fetus to term where necessary medical procedures for victims of incest and rape promptly reported are included, and whose severe and long-lasting physical health damage to the mother would result if the pregnancy were carried to term as so determined by two physicians.

These revised versions have appeared in subsequent appropriations and the current form of the Hyde amendment now consists of just the first two, where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term or in the case of victims of incest or rape when promptly reported.

The plaintiffs in these cases filed a complaint in 1976, the day on which the initial version of the Hyde amendment was adopted.

Cora McRae, the named plaintiff, a medicaid recipient, was in the first trimester of her pregnancy, wished to have an abortion.

She did not allege that the procedure was medically necessary or that continuation of her pregnancy would endanger her life.

The court entered a preliminary injunction, requiring the Secretary to fund all abortions, but then this Court decided the case of Maher v. Roe which provided in essence that the equal protection component clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in that case was not violated by excluding non-therapeutic or elective abortions from federal funding.

This case then was sent back to the District Court to consider in the light of the Court's opinion in Maher v. Roe and the court took testimony over a period of 13 months and finally in January of this year decided that the discrimination between medically necessary abortions and other medically necessary procedures violated the equal protection component of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and that it further violated the protection accorded pregnant women by the liberty implicit in the Fifth Amendment, in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and in the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

It also said in a passage which is not exactly clear to us that it violated the rights of juveniles because they were the persons who had the greatest occasion to request abortions to terminate their pregnancy.

Potter Stewart:

That passage in the District Court's opinion was an aspect of its holding with respect to the equal protection component of the Firth Amendment, was it not?

Wade H. McCree, Jr.:

This is my understanding, Mr. Justice Stewart.

This class was viewed as the suspect class and --

Potter Stewart:

Right, because of another federal statute.

Wade H. McCree, Jr.:

Because they are under the Adolescent Health Services and Pregnancy Prevention and Care Act and he found that their equal protection rights were offended by the statute.

Our argument is essentially as follows - We contend that the Hyde amendment is rationally related to the legitimate governmental interests in preserving potential human life and encouraging child birth.

We submit that the first approach is to determine the proper test to apply.

We suggest that in Maher this Court made it clear that the proper test was the rational relationship test.

In that case, which of course involved non-therapeutic or elective abortions, the Court held that it was sufficient if the Congress had a legitimate objective and if the measure was rationally related to it, and in that case it found that its interests in preserving potential human life and encouraging child birth was an appropriate relationship and it upheld the challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment.