Summary of Gonzales v. Carhart
Relevant Facts: In 2003 Congress passed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. President George W. Bush signed it. The controversial provision honed in on abolishing/banning the practice of abortions in which “the entire fetal head […] or […] any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother.” Carhart as well as late term abortion providing physicians sued for the Act to be enjoined on the grounds that such a denial constituted an “undue burden" on patients’ right to obtain an abortion as per the Supreme Court’s decision on the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case. Because Congress was not explicit in providing an exception regarding whether the ban applied to all forms of abortion, dilation and evacuation, dilation and extraction, etc. Consequently, the plaintiffs petitioned the Court on the grounds that the ban as it stood (without explicit exceptions provided) violated the patient’s Fifth Amendment privacy rights.
Issue: The constitutional question presented was whether 2003’s Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act violated personal privacy/liberty afforded to women under the Fifth Amendment because it failed to include specify the type of abortion the ban applied to and made no mention of an exemption for the ban in the event the mother’s life was in danger.
Holding: The Court ruled that the Ban did not violate patients’ Fifth Amendment rights, because it was not unconstitutionally ambiguous, and because it did not place an undue burden on women seeking late term abortions.
Majority Opinion Reasoning: The Court found that by using a reasonable interpretation – one which gives ample weight to State’s interests – the ban only applied to the more rare and controversial form of abortion (intact dilation and extraction). Consequently, since the rare form of birth control was banned and not the common form for which most abortion seekers opt, there was no undue burden. Additionally, since the more controversial form of abortion is not one which the medical community asserts is ever medically necessary to save the mother’s life, the ban was not inappropriate nor was the lack of any exceptions.
Dissenting Opinion: Associate Justice Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion which argued that the majority opinion was flawed because it decided to focus on the issue of privacy rather than personal autonomy, which she contended was at the core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which was used as the precedent to ruling on Gonzales. Ginsburg also noted that aside form the personal autonomy issue which was absolutely germane to the discussion, the Court assisted legislators with usurping the authority, derived from knowledge and experience, of medical personnel who were split in believing that the partial birth abortion procedure could ever be used as medical necessity. Ginsburg dissent appeared to be as much centered around the actual decision as it was a rebuke on the Court’s decision to seemingly abandon stare decisis, and interject itself between the decisions made between medical professionals and the pregnant women with whom they work.
Conclusion: This particular ruling was critical because for the first time since the matter of abortion was most notably addressed in Roe v. Wade, a form of abortion was not merely regulated but outright banned. Within the presented majority opinion, it is clear that the Court agreed that Congress has a prevailing interest in ensuring the safety of children, even the unborn. At the same time, the ruling presented political ambiguities that continue to be debated today regarding the rights of the unborn and the evolution of such rights depending on ethical, legal and medical markers related to viability.