United States v. Vuitch

Facts of the Case

A licensed physician was indicted for producing and attempting to produce abortions in violation of a provision of the District of Columbia Code which makes criminal the performance or attempted performance of an abortion unless done as necessary for the preservation of the mother’s life or health and under the direction of a licensed physician. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the indictment on the ground that the abortion statute was unconstitutionally vague since there was no indication whether the term health included mental as well as physical health, and since the burden was on the defendant to show that an abortion was necessary to the preservation of the mother’s life or health.

Question

(1) Does the United States Supreme Court have jurisdiction under the Criminal Appeals Act to determine if the District of Columbia’s abortion statute is unconstitutionally vague?(2) Is a statute that prohibits abortion unless necessary for the preservation for the mother’s life or health unconstitutionally vague?

CONCLUSION

Yes, no. Justice Hugo L. Black delivered the opinion of the 5-4 majority. The Court held that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to determine if the District of Columbia’s abortion statute is unconstitutionally vague because, although the law only applies to the District of Columbia, the law was enacted by both Houses of Congress and signed into law by the President. The Court also held that the word “health” in the statute refers to the state of being in body or mind and includes psychological wellbeing therefore, the abortion law is not unconstitutionally vague.Justice William O. Douglas wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which he argued that the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over the case. However the statute leaves the physician too much discretion to determine what is necessary for the preservation for the mother’s health. Justice John M. Harlan wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in par in which he argued that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction over this case because the statute only applies to the District of Columbia. Justice William J. Brennan Jr., Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Justice Harry A. Blackmun joined in the partial concurrence and partial dissent. In his separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, Justice Potter Stewart agreed that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction but argued that the physicians who performed abortions should be wholly immune from being charged with criminal offenses under this law if they performed abortions in order to preserve the mother’s life or health.

Case Information

  • Citation: 402 US 62 (1971)
  • Argued: Jan 12, 1971
  • Decided Apr 21, 1971