Life-Related Court Decisions

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Commentary and Analysis



Except where otherwise noted, all decisions are from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Jan 21, 2010

The law cannot prohibit someone from speaking out on political issues just because the communication was paid for with corporate or union money. The sections of McCain-Feingold that barred such speech are unconstitutional.

The law can require political speakers to identify themselves, like the familiar disclaimer, "My name is so-and-so and I approved this message."

The decision did not address limits on contributions to candidates, so those presumably stand. Thus, a corporation could take out a TV or newspaper ad saying "Vote for Senator Jones", but they still could not give Senator Jones the money to take out such an ad himself.



Gonzales v. Carhart

Apr 18, 2007

The federal government may ban a specific abortion method, Partial Birth Abortion.

The law in question is not "unconstitionally vague" because it clearly defines what is and is not prohibited, namely, partially delivering a living baby and then killing him is prohibited, while killing the baby in the womb and then removing the body is legal. Also, the law includes a "scienter requirement", that is, it states that the abortionist must be doing this deliberately, and that if, in the course of some other form of abortion, a baby were to accidentally be partially delivered, this would not be a violation of the law.

This is the first time that the court has approved any restriction on abortion that did not include an exception for the "health of the mother". (The court has declared this must include physical health, mental health, and "social health".) The law included a "finding" that Partial Birth Abortion is never necessary to protect a woman's health, that there are other alternatives that are no more dangerous to her. Evidence was presented on both sides of this question, and the court ruled that when the expert testimony is contradictory, the Constitution does not prevent Congress from drawing its own conclusions.



Schiedler v. National Organization for Women (III)

Feb 28, 2006

Anti-abortion protestors are not "racketeers" (i.e. gangsters), as the government defines the term. Attempting to discourage customers from patronizing a business is not extortion. Even though the abortionists claimed that the anti-abortion protestors engaged in some isolated acts of physical violence, "Physical violence unrelated to robbery or extortion falls outside the Hobbs Actís scope. Congress did not intend to create a freestanding physical violence offense. It did intend to forbid acts or threats of physical violence in furtherance of a plan or purpose to engage in what the Act refers to as robbery or extortion (and related attempts or conspiracies)." (After the original trial, many of the claims of physical violence by anti-abortion protestors were proven to be perjury, and all the rest were shown to be initiated by people not connected to the defendents charged with the crime. The abortionist argued that by staging the protest, the protestors assumed responsibility for anything done by anyone who might come along later. The courts did not rule on this part of the issue as it was declared irrelevant, given that the court had already said that even if the protestors did engage in violence, this may be a crime under state law, but not under the federal laws being used to prosecute them.)



Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England

Jan 18, 2006

Just because there are "a very small percentage of cases" where applying a law would be unjust, "invalidating the statute entirely is not always necessary or justified, for lower courts may be able to render narrower declaratory and injunctive relief." That is, the courts should not declare an entire law "unconstitutional" simply because there are a tiny number of occasions when it would be unjust.

Specifically, the case involved a New Hampshire law that required abortionists to notify the parents before committing an abortion on a girl under 18. The law included various exceptions, including allowing a judge to declare that the girl is "mature" enough to make this decision without her parents' involvement, or if the girl's life is in danger and there is no time to notify her parents. Planned Parenthood challenged the law on the grounds that there could be medical emergencies involving something less than imminent death, and that the law made no provision for such cases.


Gonzales v. Oregon

Jan 17, 2006

The Food and Drug Administration does not have the authority to prevent a doctor from prescribing drugs that are deliberately intended to cause the patient's death (i.e. "assisted suicide"), when state law permits it. The law that gives the FDA its authority says that it is supposed to be trying to prevent "drug abuse". But in this case the court declared that "drug abuse" means addicition or deliberately getting high, not suicide. That is, you are abusing drugs if you get yourself or someone else addicted, but not if you deliberately kill someone.


Scheidler v. National Organization for Women (II)

Social or political protest is not "extortion" as that term is defined by the law. To be guilty of extortion someone must "obtain property" or attempt to obtain property. Interfering with someone else's ability to use their property as they please is therefore not extortion (though it could be "coercian", which is also a crime).

Syllabus | Opinion | Concur | Dissent

Stenberg v. Carhart

Jun 28, 2000

The law may not place a "substantial obstacle" in the way of a woman seeking an abortion. Therefore, the state may not ban a particular abortion procedure, even though it is rarely used, if the law is worded in such a way that an overzealous prosecutor might attempt to apply it to ban a more common abortion procedure. Even if this never actually happened, doctors might be afraid to perform abortions for fear that it might, and this could make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions.

Also, any law restricting abortion must provide exceptions for the woman's health. Even though in this case all the medical experts who presented evidence agreed that they could not identify any set of circumstances where the procedure under discussion might be more safe for the mother than other procedures, it is still possible that other physicians might disagree, or that new information might come to light in the future.


Women's Medical Professional Corp v. Voinovich

Nov 18, 1997
While the courts have traditionally held that for a law to be declared "facially unconstitutional", there must be no conceivable set of circumstances under which the law could be constitutionally applied, this rule does not apply to abortion regulation. For abortion, a law is "unconstitutional" if one can hypothesize any circumstances under which it would prevent someone from doing what they otherwise would like to do.

Courts have generally looked with disfavor on laws that do not have a "scienter" requirement, that is, a requirement that the person involved knows that what he did was a violation of the law. In general courts have followed a "reasonable man" standard, that is, if a reasonable person would understand that his actions violated the law, than the person can be convicted. For abortion regulation, however, this standard is not acceptable, and the determination of whether the law applies to a given set of circumstances must be left entirely up to the person charged with violating the law.

(If this sounds bizarre, believe me, I tried to find another way to put it that would make the decision sound more sensible. Read the decision yourself.)

Opinion and Dissent

Washington v. Glucksberg

June 26, 1997
Our Constitution does not recognize a "right to die", that is, a right to commit suicide, much less a right to receive assistance in committing suicide. States may pass laws prohibing anyone from encouraging or assisting in another's suicide.

While the courts have long recognized a legal right to refuse medical treatment, even if this will likely result in the patient's imminent death, there is a great difference between not doing something to save someone's life, and actively doing something to hasten their death.


Schenk v. Pro-Choice Network

Feb 20, 1997
A court may create a "bubble-zone" around an abortion center where anti-abortion protests are prohibited; in this case 15 feet was considered acceptable. But a court cannot create "floating bubble zones" around people entering or leaving, as this puts too much of a burden on the protestors to have to constantly move every time someone comes or goes. Abortion supporters do not have a Constitutional right to not have to hear pro-life messages.


Haskell v. Voinovich

Federal Circuit Court, Dec 13, 1995
A state may ban post-viability abortions, as long as it does not prevent a woman from getting an abortion if the abortionist says it would benefit her in a "holistic" sense. The law challenged here is "unconstitutionally vague" because it contains specific objective criteria that the abortionist is required to meet before performing an abortion. (Sorry if that sounds paradoxical, but that's what the judge said.)

Part I | Part II | Part III

Madsen v Women's Health Ctr

Case 93-880, June 30, 1994
An injunction against pro-life protestors must be narrowly drawn. It can keep protestors off the sidewalk in front of the abortion mill, but cannot prevent protests on the other side of the street or on neighboring property.


NOW v Scheidler

Case 92-780, Jan 24, 1994
Anti-abortion protestors may be sued as "racketeers" under the RICO Act. When RICO defines the word "enterprise" as a financially-motivated organization, this only refers to the use of the word when describing the victim, not the alleged perpertrator, of a crime.


Bray v Alexandria Women's Health Clinic

Case 90-985, Jan 13, 1993
Federal laws against discrimination do not apply to pro-life protestors. "Women seeking abortions" do not qualify as a protectable class like a racial group, and there is no reasonable basis to believe that pro-life protestors are motivated by animosity toward women in general.


Planned Parenthood v Casey

Case 91-744, Jun 29, 1992
Laws may be passed to restrict abortion after viability. Abortionists may be required to give women information before performing the abortion. Laws may required a minor girl's parents to be notified, provided this requirement can be waived if a judge decides it's a good idea. The law may NOT require a husband to be notified before his wife has an abortion, because he might try to talk her out of it and this would violate her rights.


Rust v Sullivan

Case 89-1391, May 23, 1991
The government is not required to pay for abortion counseling. (This case was about what pro-abortion activists called the "Gag Rule", claiming that for the government to refuse to pay for pro-abortion speech is a form of censorship.)


Ohio v Akron Ctr for Reproductive Health

Case 88-805, June 25, 1990
A state may require that an abortionist notify the parents of an underage girl before performing an abortion on her, provided that the law allows a judge to make exceptions and authorize an abortion without informing the parents whenever he believes that it would be in the girl's "best interests". (Note that the Ohio law which was being challenged here did not require parents to consent to the abortion, merely that they had to be informed.)


Hodgson v. Minnesota

Case 88-1125, June 25, 1990
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires that a law mandating that both parents of an underage girl be notified before an abortion may be performed on her is permissible only if it includes a provision that a judge may make exceptions on various grounds. The law may require a 48-hour waiting period between notification and the performance of the abortion to give the parents a realistic opportunity to talk to the daughter.


Davis v. Davis v. King

Circuit Court for Blount County, Tennessee, Sept 21, 1989
In a divorce case, a frozen embryo is not a piece of property to be negotiated over, but a child, to be placed in the custody of the parent who, in the opinion of the court, is most able to act in the best interests of that child.

Appendix A of this decision is a good discussion of some general legal principles in simple layman's terms.

Syllabus | Opinion

Webster v Reproductive Health

July 3, 1989

The government is not required to pay for abortions, nor allow them to be performed in government-run hospitals. Laws may restrict abortion after viability. The trimester framework of Roe v. Wade is abandoned as unworkable.

Syllabus | Pleadings | Opinion | Concur #1 | Concur #2 | Dissent | Partial

Bowen v American Hospital Association


Denying medical care to a newborn baby because that baby is mentally retarded or otherwise handicapped is not a violation of laws forbidding discrimination against handicapped people, provided that the baby's parents agreed to the denial of care. This applies even if the deliberate intent of the denial of care was to cause the baby's death. Feeding is considered a form of medical care for this purpose.

Syllabus | Opinion | Concur | Dissent #1 | Dissent #2

Cruzan v Missouri Department of Health

No one may decide that a person who is unable to communicate would prefer to be dead without "clear and convincing evidence" that that was the person's wish.


Roe v Wade

Jan 22, 1973
Abortion is a constitutional right, although we're not exactly sure where in the Constitution it's found ("whether in the fifth amendment ... or in the ninth ...") An unborn child is not a "person" as that term is used in the Constitution. The abortion laws of all fifties states are declared unconstitutional infringements on the right of women to "terminate a pregnancy".

Syllabus | Opinion | Concur #1 | Concur #2 | Concur #3 | Dissent #1 | Dissent #2

Doe v Bolton

Jan 22, 1973
Abortion is constitutionally protected whenever it is necessary to protect a woman's health. "Health" is defined to include "all factors -- pysical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age".

Syllabus | Opinion | Appendices | Dissent

Scott v Sandford

March, 1857
The Supreme Court declared that whatever rights a black person may have, he cannot go to federal court to uphold those rights, because a black person, whether slave or free, is not a "citizen" of the United States as that term is used in the Constitution. A slave does not become free by being brought to a state where slavery is illegal. The Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in the northern part of the Louisanna Purchase, is an unconstitutional infringment on the right of white people to own slaves.

This case has many interesting parallels to Roe v Wade.

Syllabus | Pleadings | Opinion | Concur 1 | Concur 2 | Concur 3 | Dissent

Marbury v Madison

February, 1803
The Supreme Court has the power to overturn an act of Congress which it considers "unconstitutional". The law overturned in this case attempted to give the Court the authority to hear certain types of cases originally (as opposed to on appeal). The Court rejected this as exceeding the power given it by the Constitution. Thus, in the very act of rejecting this minor power -- to be the first to hear a case instead of the second -- they claimed for themselves a much greater power, the power to veto any law they didn't like. This decision was a key precedent for Roe v Wade.

Syllabus | Opinion

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Updated Jan 25, 2010

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