Whalen v. Roe Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The State of New York maintained a centralized computer database of the names and addresses of all persons who have obtained, by prescription, a drug for which there is both a legal and an illegal market.

Facts of the case

In 1972, the state legislature enacted the New York State Controlled Substances Act. The Act required doctors to fill out forms for potentially harmful prescription drugs. The prescribing doctor kept one copy, while another copy was sent to the dispensing pharmacy and a third copy was sent to the state department of health. The forms included personal information such as the patient’s name, address, and age.


May the government maintain lists of personal health information without violating a zone of privacy?


“Yes. Appeals Court ruling reverse.
Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) argued that there are two different interests implicated by zones of privacy. The first is the right to avoid disclosing personal matters and the second is the right to independence in making certain decisions.
The statute protects against public disclosure and some degree of disclosure is already inherent in the current prescription drug system. The Respondent has failed to establish how the statute invades any right or liberty.

Discussion. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) does not argue there is no invasion of privacy here, only that there is no constitutionally impermissible invasion of privacy. J. Stevens acknowledges the fear of accidental disclosure, but he also acknowledges that there is a statutory penalty for unauthorized disclosure.”


The United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment and held that the law did not violate privacy rights because it established adequate measures to protect individual privacy and that there was no evidence that the law had affected any patient’s decision to obtain a prescription. The Court agreed that there was a constitutionally protected zone of privacy that included the interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters and the interest in independence in making important personal decisions. The Court held the law adequately protected privacy when it limited access to the lists and built in protection from disclosures.

  • Case Brief: 1977
  • Appellant: Whalen
  • Appellee: Roe
  • Decided by: Burger Court

Citation: 429 US 589 (1977)
Argued: Oct 13, 1976
Decided: Feb 22, 1977