Today, in its ruling upholding the Federal Abortion Ban case, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overturned 30 years of precedent and announced that women’s health is no longer a paramount concern. The Center for Reproductive Rights said the Court’s decision paves the way for state and federal legislatures to enact additional bans on abortions, including those that doctors say are safe and medically necessary.
“It took just a year for this new Court to overturn three decades of established law. Today’s ruling is a stunning assault on women’s health and the expertise of doctors who care for them,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “The Court has dramatically reduced the ability of doctors to provide services that, in their opinion, are the safest / best options to protect women’s health. This Court believes that Members of Congress – not doctors – are in the best position to make medical decisions for their patients. In direct contradiction to earlier rulings and established law, today the Court announced that there are some aspects of women’s health it is willing to sacrifice. This is a terrifying development, one with implications far beyond the abortion debate. Every American who cares about women’s health, and doctors’ ability to treat their patients appropriately, should be alarmed by this ruling.”
Said Northup, “Make no mistake – today’s ruling takes us perilously close to a complete reversal of Roe v. Wade. And we should assume that this is only the beginning. The Justices have shown their cards. Despite assurances that they would uphold precedents, the Court has now kicked open the door for states to impose broader restrictions on Roe, restrictions that will sacrifice women’s health for the sake of ideological gains. In his confirmation hearings before the Senate, Chief Justice Roberts said he believed it is a ‘jolt’ to the legal system when Supreme Court precedents are overturned. Apparently, under some circumstances, he is willing to jolt the legal system, at the expense of women’s health.”
The Center’s Arguments and the Supreme Court’s Decision
The Center opposed the ban for many reasons:
- It bans safe and effective abortions, which impermissibly burdens the right to obtain an abortion before viability.
- It fails to make any exception to the ban when a woman’s health is at stake, which violates established constitutional protections that have been in place for 30 years.
- It uses broad language subject to wildly different interpretations that cover steps doctors routinely take in performing abortions in the second trimester, thus making it impossible for doctors to understand exactly what is prohibited.
- Decisions involving pregnancy and medical care should be left to women and their doctors, not politicians.
- It is part of a larger agenda to outlaw all abortions.
The Supreme Court’s decision gives the states a green light to criminalize safe, medically-necessary abortions. According to the Center’s report What if Roe Fell the legal building blocks are already in place to dramatically or entirely overturn Roe. Thirty states are ready to criminalize all abortions within a year of Roe being overturned.
Both the Center and Planned Parenthood Federation of America challenged the Federal Abortion Ban, also known as the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003,” and argued their cases before the Supreme Court last fall. Today’s ruling covers both cases – the Center for Reproductive Rights’ case (Gonzales v. Carhart) and Planned Parenthood’s case (Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood).
History of Gonzales v. Carhart
On November 5, 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the first-ever federal ban on abortion, despite a June 2000 Supreme Court ruling that found a similar state ban to be unconstitutional because it did not include an exception to protect women’s health.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, American Civil Liberties Union, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America all moved quickly to challenge this Federal Abortion Ban in separate lawsuits in federal district courts. In 2004, all three courts declared the law unconstitutional. In the Center’s case, in September 2004, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf of Nebraska concluded that, “the overwhelming weight of the trial evidence proves that the banned procedure is safe and medically necessary in order to preserve the health of women under certain circumstances. In the absence of an exception for the health of a woman, banning the procedure constitutes a significant health hazard to women.” Judge Kopf also agreed that the ban would outlaw some procedures that are among the safest and most common methods of abortion, starting early in the second trimester.
The government filed appeals in each case. The Center’s case, Gonzales v. Carhart, was the first to be decided when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held the ban unconstitutional in July 2005. In September 2005, the federal government asked the Supreme Court to review that decision, and the Court accepted the case for review February 2006. The other two appellate courts, in separate decisions, also declared the law unconstitutional in January 2006, and the Supreme Court agreed to review the Planned Parenthood case in June 2006.
The Center and Planned Parenthood argued their cases before the Supreme Court on November 8, 2006.