Webster v. Reproductive Health: Dissent

Pregnant Pause Home Courts Search this site

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




No. 88-605. Argued April 26, 1989 -- Decided July 3, 1989

JUSTICE BLACKMUN, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN and JUSTICE MARSHALL join, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Today, Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and the fundamental constitutional right of women to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, survive but are not secure. Although the Court extricates itself from this case without making a single, even incremental, change in the law of abortion, the plurality and Justice Scalia would overrule Roe (the first silently, the other explicitly) and would return to the States [*538] virtually unfettered authority to control the quintessentially intimate, personal, and life-directing decision whether to carry a fetus to term. Although today, no less than yesterday, the Constitution and the decisions of this Court prohibit a State from enacting laws that inhibit women from the meaningful exercise of that right, a plurality of this Court implicitly invites every state legislature to enact more and more restrictive abortion regulations in order to provoke more and more test cases, in the hope that sometime down the line the Court will return the law of procreative freedom to the severe limitations that generally prevailed in this country before January 22, 1973. Never in my memory has a plurality announced a judgment of this Court that so foments disregard for the law and for our standing decisions.

Nor in my memory has a plurality gone about its business in such a deceptive fashion. At every level of its review, from its effort to read the real meaning out of the Missouri statute, to its intended evisceration of precedents and its deafening silence about the constitutional protections that it would jettison, the plurality obscures the portent of its analysis. With feigned restraint, the plurality announces that its analysis leaves Roe "undisturbed," albeit "modif[ied] and narrow[ed]." Ante, at 521. But this disclaimer is totally meaningless. The plurality opinion is filled with winks, and nods, and knowing glances to those who would do away with Roe explicitly, but turns a stone face to anyone in search of what the plurality conceives as the scope of a woman's right under the Due Process Clause to terminate a pregnancy free from the coercive and brooding influence of the State. The simple truth is that Roe would not survive the plurality's analysis, and that the plurality provides no substitute for Roe's protective umbrella.

I fear for the future. I fear for the liberty and equality of the millions of women who have lived and come of age in the 16 years since Roe was decided. I fear for the integrity of, and public esteem for, this Court.

I dissent.


The Chief Justice parades through the four challenged sections of the Missouri statute seriatim. I shall not do this, but shall relegate most of my comments as to those sections to the margin.1 Although I disagree with the Court's consideration [*540] of §§1.205, 188.210, and 188.215, and am especially disturbed by its misapplication of our past decisions in upholding Missouri's ban on the performance of abortions at [*541] "public facilities," its discussion of these provisions is merely prologue to the plurality's consideration of the statute's viability-testing requirement, §188.029 -- the only section of the Missouri statute that the plurality construes as implicating Roe itself. There, tucked away at the end of its opinion, the plurality suggests a radical reversal of the law of abortion; and there, primarily, I direct my attention.

In the plurality's view, the viability-testing provision imposes a burden on second-trimester abortions as a way of furthering the State's interest in protecting the potential life of the fetus. Since under the Roe framework, the State may not fully regulate abortion in the interest of potential life (as opposed to maternal health) until the third trimester, the plurality finds it necessary, in order to save the Missouri testing provision, to throw out Roe's trimester framework. Ante, at 518-520. In flat contradiction to Roe, 410 U.S., at 163, the plurality concludes that the State's interest in potential life is compelling before viability, and upholds the testing provision [*542] because it "permissibly furthers" that state interest. Ante, at 519.


At the outset, I note that in its haste to limit abortion rights, the plurality compounds the errors of its analysis by needlessly reaching out to address constitutional questions that are not actually presented. The conflict between §188.029 and Roe's trimester framework, which purportedly drives the plurality to reconsider our past decisions, is a contrived conflict: the product of an aggressive misreading of the viability-testing requirement and a needlessly wooden application of the Roe framework.

The plurality's reading of §188.029 is irreconcilable with the plain language of the statute and is in derogation of this Court's settled view that "'district courts and courts of appeals are better schooled in and more able to interpret the laws of their respective States.'" Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 482 (1988), quoting Brockett v. Spokane Arcades, Inc., 472 U.S. 491, 499-500 (1985). Abruptly setting aside the construction of § 188.029 adopted by both the District Court and Court of Appeals as "plain error," the plurality reads the viability-testing provision as requiring only that before a physician may perform an abortion on a woman whom he believes to be carrying a fetus of 20 or more weeks gestational age, the doctor must determine whether the fetus is viable and, as part of that exercise, must, to the extent feasible and consistent with sound medical practice, conduc tests necessary to make findings of gestational age, weight, and lung maturity. Ante, at 514-517. But the plurality's reading of the provision, according to which the statute requires the physician to perform tests only in order to determine viability, ignores the statutory language explicitly directing that "the physician shall perform or cause to be performed such medical examinations and tests as are necessary to make a finding of the gestational age, weight, and lung maturity of the unborn child and shall enter such findings" in the mother's medical record. §188.029 (emphasis added). The [*543] statute's plain language requires the physician to undertake whatever tests are necessary to determine gestational age, weight, and lung maturity, regardless of whether these tests are necessary to a finding of viability, and regardless of whether the tests subject the pregnant woman or the fetus to additional health risks or add substantially to the cost of an abortion.2

Had the plurality read the statute as written, it would have had no cause to reconsider the Roe framework. As properly construed, the viability-testing provision does not pass constitutional muster under even a rational-basis standard, the least restrictive level of review applied by this Court. See Williamson v. Lee Optical Co., 348 U.S. 483 (1955). By mandating tests to determine fetal weight and lung maturity for every fetus thought to be more than 20 weeks gestational age, the statute requires physicians to undertake procedures, such as amniocentesis, that, in the situation presented, have no medical justification, impose significant additional health risks on both the pregnant woman and the fetus, and bear no rational relation to the State's interest in protecting fetal life.3 As written, §188.029 is an arbitrary imposition of discomfort, risk, and expense, furthering no discernible interest except to make the procurement of an abortion as arduous and difficult as possible. Thus, were it not for [*544] the plurality's tortured effort to avoid the plain import of §188.029, it could have struck down the testing provision as patently irrational irrespective of the Roe framework.4

The plurality eschews this straightforward resolution, in the hope of precipitating a constitutional crisis. Far from avoiding constitutional difficulty, the plurality attempts to engineer a dramatic retrenchment in our jurisprudence by exaggerating the conflict between its untenable construction of §188.029 and the Roe trimester framework.

No one contests that under the Roe framework the State, in order to promote its interest in potential human life, may regulate and even proscribe nontherapeutic abortions once the fetus becomes viable. Roe, 410 U.S., at 164-165. If, as the plurality appears to hold, the testing provision simply requires a physician to use appropriate and medically sound tests to determine whether the fetus is actually viable when the estimated gestational age is greater than 20 weeks (and therefore within what the District Court found to be the margin of error for viability, ante, at 515-516), then I see little or no conflict with Roe.5 Nothing in Roe, or any of its progeny, holds that a State may not effectuate its compelling interest in the potential life of a viable fetus by seeking to ensure that no viable fetus is mistakenly aborted because of the inherent lack of precision in estimates of gestational age. A requirement that a physician make a finding of viability, one way or [*545] the other, for every fetus that falls within the range of possible viability does no more than preserve the State's recognized authority. Although, as the plurality correctly points out, such a testing requirement would have the effect of imposing additional costs on second-trimester abortions where the tests indicated that the fetus was not viable, these costs would be merely incidental to, and a necessary accommodation of, the State's unquestioned right to prohibit nontherapeutic abortions after the point of viability. In short, the testing provision, as construed by the plurality, is consistent with the Roe framework and could be upheld effortlessly under current doctrine.6

How ironic it is, then, and disingenuous, that the plurality scolds the Court of Appeals for adopting a construction of the statute that fails to avoid constitutional difficulties. Ante, at [*546] 514, 515. By distorting the statute, the plurality manages to avoid invalidating the testing provision on what should have been noncontroversial constitutional grounds; having done so, however, the plurality rushes headlong into a much deeper constitutional thicket, brushing past an obvious basis for upholding §188.029 in search of a pretext for scuttling the trimester framework. Evidently, from the plurality's perspective, the real problem with the Court of Appeals' construction of § 188.029 is not that it raised a constitutional difficulty, but that it raised the wrong constitutional difficulty -- one not implicating Roe. The plurality has remedied that, traditional canons of construction and judicial forbearance notwithstanding.


Having set up the conflict between §188.029 and the Roe trimester framework, the plurality summarily discards Roe's analytic core as "'unsound in principle and unworkable in practice.'" Ante, at 518, quoting Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U.S. 528, 546 (1985). This is so, the plurality claims, because the key elements of the framework do not appear in the text of the Constitution, because the framework more closely resembles a regulatory code than a body of constitutional doctrine, and because under the framework the State's interest in potential human life is considered compelling only after viability, when, in fact, that interest is equally compelling throughout pregnancy. Ante, at 519-520. The plurality does not bother to explain these alleged flaws in Roe. Bald assertion masquerades as reasoning. The object, quite clearly, is not to persuade, but to prevail.


The plurality opinion is far more remarkable for the arguments that it does not advance than for those that it does. The plurality does not even mention, much less join, the true jurisprudential debate underlying this case: whether the Constitution includes an "unenumerated" general right to [*547] privacy as recognized in many of our decisions, most notably Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), and Roe, and, more specifically, whether, and to what extent, such a right to privacy extends to matters of childbearing and family life, including abortion. See, e. g., Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972) (contraception); Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967) (marriage); Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942) (procreation); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925) (childrearing).7 These are questions of unsurpassed significance in this Court's interpretation of the Constitution, and mark the battleground upon which this case was fought, by the parties, by the United States as amicus on behalf of petitioners, and by an unprecedented number of amici. On these grounds, abandoned by the plurality, the Court should decide this case.

But rather than arguing that the text of the Constitution makes no mention of the right to privacy, the plurality complains that the critical elements of the Roe framework -- trimesters [*548] and viability -- do not appear in the Constitution and are, therefore, somehow inconsistent with a Constitution cast in general terms. Ante, at 518-519. Were this a true concern, we would have to abandon most of our constitutional jurisprudence. As the plurality well knows, or should know, the "critical elements" of countless constitutional doctrines nowhere appear in the Constitution's text. The Constitution makes no mention, for example, of the First Amendment's "actual malice" standard for proving certain libels, see New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), or of the standard for determining when speech is obscene. See Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973). Similarly, the Constitution makes no mention of the rational-basis test, or the specific verbal formulations of intermediate and strict scrutiny by which this Court evaluates claims under the Equal Protection Clause. The reason is simple. Like the Roe framework, these tests or standards are not, and do not purport to be, rights protected by the Constitution. Rather, they are judge-made methods for evaluating and measuring the strength and scope of constitutional rights or for balancing the constitutional rights of individuals against the competing interests of government.

With respect to the Roe framework, the general constitutional principle, indeed the fundamental constitutional right, for which it was developed is the right to privacy, see, e. g., Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), a species of "liberty" protected by the Due Process Clause, which under our past decisions safeguards the right of women to exercise some control over their own role in procreation. As we recently reaffirmed in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 476 U.S. 747 (1986), few decisions are "more basic to individual dignity and autonomy" or more appropriate to that "certain private sphere of individual liberty" that the Constitution reserves from the intrusive reach of government than the right to make the uniquely personal, intimate, and self-defining decision whether to end [*549] a pregnancy. Id., at 772. It is this general principle, the "'moral fact that a person belongs to himself and not others nor to society as a whole,'" id., at 777, n. 5 (Stevens, J., concurring), quoting Fried, Correspondence, 6 Phil. & Pub. Aff. 288-289 (1977), that is found in the Constitution. See Roe, 410 U.S., at 152-153. The trimester framework simply defines and limits that right to privacy in the abortion context to accommodate, not destroy, a State's legitimate interest in protecting the health of pregnant women and in preserving potential human life. Id., at 154-162. Fashioning such accommodations between individual rights and the legitimate interests of government, establishing benchmarks and standards with which to evaluate the competing claims of individuals and government, lies at the very heart of constitutional adjudication. To the extent that the trimester framework is useful in this enterprise, it is not only consistent with constitutional interpretation, but necessary to the wise and just exercise of this Court's paramount authority to define the scope of constitutional rights.


The plurality next alleges that the result of the trimester framework has "been a web of legal rules that have become increasingly intricate, resembling a code of regulations rather than a body of constitutional doctrine." Ante, at 518. Again, if this were a true and genuine concern, we would have to abandon vast areas of our constitutional jurisprudence. The plurality complains that under the trimester framework the Court has distinguished between a city ordinance requiring that second-trimester abortions be performed in clinics and a state law requiring that these abortions be performed in hospitals, or between laws requiring that certain information be furnished to a woman by a physician or his assistant and those requiring that such information be furnished by the physician exclusively. Ante, at 518, n. 15, citing Simopoulos v. Virginia, 462 U.S. 506 (1983), [*550] and Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc., 462 U.S. 416 (1983). Are these distinctions any finer, or more "regulatory," than the distinctions we have often drawn in our First Amendment jurisprudence, where, for example, we have held that a "release time" program permitting public-school students to leave school grounds during school hours to receive religious instruction does not violate the Establishment Clause, even though a release-time program permitting religious instruction on school grounds does violate the Clause? Compare Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952), with Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education of School Dist. No. 71, Champaign County, 333 U.S. 203 (1948). Our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence recognizes factual distinctions no less intricate. Just this Term, for example, we held that while an aerial observation from a helicopter hovering at 400 feet does not violate any reasonable expectation of privacy, such an expectation of privacy would be violated by a helicopter observation from an unusually low altitude. Florida v. Riley, 488 U.S. 445, 451 (1989) (O'Connor, J., concurring in judgment). Similarly, in a Sixth Amendment case, the Court held that although an overnight ban on attorney-client communication violated the constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel, Geders v. United States, 425 U.S. 80 (1976), that right was not violated when a trial judge separated a defendant from his lawyer during a 15-minute recess after the defendant's direct testimony. Perry v. Leeke, 488 U.S. 272 (1989).

That numerous constitutional doctrines result in narrow differentiations between similar circumstances does not mean that this Court has abandoned adjudication in favor of regulation. Rather, these careful distinctions reflect the process of constitutional adjudication itself, which is often highly fact specific, requiring such determinations as whether state laws are "unduly burdensome" or "reasonable" or bear a "rational" or "necessary" relation to asserted state interests. In a recent due process case, The Chief Justice wrote for the [*551] Court: "[M]any branches of the law abound in nice distinctions that may be troublesome but have been thought nonetheless necessary: 'I do not think we need trouble ourselves with the thought that my view depends upon differences of degree. The whole law does so as soon as it is civilized.'" Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 334 (1986), quoting LeRoy Fibre Co. v. Chicago, M. & St. P. R. Co., 232 U.S. 340, 354 (1914) (Holmes, J., partially concurring).

These "differences of degree" fully account for our holdings in Simopoulos, supra, and Akron, supra. Those decisions rest on this Court's reasoned and accurate judgment that hospitalization and doctor-counseling requirements unduly burdened the right of women to terminate a pregnancy and were not rationally related to the State's asserted interest in the health of pregnant women, while Virginia's substantially less restrictive regulations were not unduly burdensome and did rationally serve the State's interest.8 That the Court exercised its best judgment in evaluating these markedly different statutory schemes no more established the Court as an "'ex officio medical board,'" ante, at 519, quoting Planned Parenthood of Central Mo. v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52, 99 (1976) (opinion of White, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part), than our decisions involving religion in the public schools establish the Court as a national school board, or our decisions concerning prison regulations establish the Court as [*552] a bureau of prisons. See Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401 (1989) (adopting different standard of First Amendment review for incoming as opposed to outgoing prison mail). If, in delicate and complicated areas of constitutional law, our legal judgments "have become increasingly intricate," ante, at 518, it is not, as the plurality contends, because we have overstepped our judicial role. Quite the opposite: the rules are intricate because we have remained conscientious in our duty to do justice carefully, especially when fundamental rights rise or fall with our decisions.


Finally, the plurality asserts that the trimester framework cannot stand because the State's interest in potential life is compelling throughout pregnancy, not merely after viability. Ante, at 519. The opinion contains not one word of rationale for its view of the State's interest. This "it-is-so-because-we-say-so" jurisprudence constitutes nothing other than an attempted exercise of brute force; reason, much less persuasion, has no place.

In answering the plurality's claim that the State's interest in the fetus is uniform and compelling throughout pregnancy, I cannot improve upon what Justice Stevens has written:

"I should think it obvious that the State's interest in the protection of an embryo -- even if that interest is defined as 'protecting those who will be citizens' ... -- increases progressively and dramatically as the organism's capacity to feel pain, to experience pleasure, to survive, and to react to its surroundings increases day by day. The development of a fetus -- and pregnancy itself -- are not static conditions, and the assertion that the government's interest is static simply ignores this reality. ... [U]nless the religious view that a fetus is a 'person' is adopted ... there is a fundamental and well-recognized difference between a fetus and a human being; indeed, if [*553] there is not such a difference, the permissibility of terminating the life of a fetus could scarcely be left to the will of the state legislatures. And if distinctions may be drawn between a fetus and a human being in terms of the state interest in their protection -- even though the fetus represents one of 'those who will be citizens' -- it seems to me quite odd to argue that distinctions may not also be drawn between the state interest in protecting the freshly fertilized egg and the state interest in protecting the 9-month-gestated, fully sentient fetus on the eve of birth. Recognition of this distinction is supported not only by logic, but also by history and by our shared experiences." Thornburgh, 476 U.S., at 778-779 (footnote omitted).

See also Roe, 410 U.S., at 129-147.

For my own part, I remain convinced, as six other Members of this Court 16 years ago were convinced, that the Roe framework, and the viability standard in particular, fairly, sensibly, and effectively functions to safeguard the constitutional liberties of pregnant women while recognizing and accommodating the State's interest in potential human life. The viability line reflects the biological facts and truths of fetal development; it marks that threshold moment prior to which a fetus cannot survive separate from the woman and cannot reasonably and objectively be regarded as a subject of rights or interests distinct from, or paramount to, those of the pregnant woman. At the same time, the viability standard takes account of the undeniable fact that as the fetus evolves into its postnatal form, and as it loses its dependence on the uterine environment, the State's interest in the fetus' potential human life, and in fostering a regard for human life in general, becomes compelling. As a practical matter, because viability follows "quickening" -- the point at which a woman feels movement in her womb -- and because viability occurs no earlier than 23 weeks gestational age, it establishes an easily applicable standard for regulating abortion while [*554] providing a pregnant woman ample time to exercise her fundamental right with her responsible physician to terminate her pregnancy.9 Although I have stated previously for a majority of this Court that "[c]onstitutional rights do not always have easily ascertainable boundaries," to seek and establish those boundaries remains the special responsibility of this Court. Thornburgh, 476 U.S., at 771. In Roe, we discharged that responsibility as logic and science compelled. The plurality today advances not one reasonable argument as to why our judgment in that case was wrong and should be abandoned.


Having contrived an opportunity to reconsider the Roe framework, and then having discarded that framework, the plurality finds the testing provision unobjectionable because it "permissibly furthers the State's interest in protecting potential human life." Ante, at 519-520. This newly minted [*555] standard is circular and totally meaningless. Whether a challenged abortion regulation "permissibly furthers" a legitimate state interest is the question that courts must answer in abortion cases, not the standard for courts to apply. In keeping with the rest of its opinion, the plurality makes no attempt to explain or to justify its new standard, either in the abstract or as applied in this case. Nor could it. The "permissibly furthers" standard has no independent meaning, and consists of nothing other than what a majority of this Court may believe at any given moment in any given case. The plurality's novel test appears to be nothing more than a dressed-up version of rational-basis review, this Court's most lenient level of scrutiny. One thing is clear, however: were the plurality's "permissibly furthers" standard adopted by the Court, for all practical purposes, Roe would be overruled.10

The "permissibly furthers" standard completely disregards the irreducible minimum of Roe: the Court's recognition that a woman has a limited fundamental constitutional right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. That right receives no meaningful recognition in the plurality's written opinion. Since, in the plurality's view, the State's interest in potential life is compelling as of the moment of conception, and is therefore served only if abortion is abolished, every hindrance to a woman's ability to obtain an abortion must be "permissible." Indeed, the more severe the hindrance, the more effectively (and permissibly) the State's interest would be furthered. A tax on abortions or a criminal prohibition would both satisfy the plurality's standard. So, for that [*556] matter, would a requirement that a pregnant woman memorize and recite today's plurality opinion before seeking an abortion.

The plurality pretends that Roe survives, explaining that the facts of this case differ from those in Roe: here, Missouri has chosen to assert its interest in potential life only at the point of viability, whereas, in Roe, Texas had asserted that interest from the point of conception, criminalizing all abortions, except where the life of the mother was at stake. Ante, at 521. This, of course, is a distinction without a difference. The plurality repudiates every principle for which Roe stands; in good conscience, it cannot possibly believe that Roe lies "undisturbed" merely because this case does not call upon the Court to reconsider the Texas statute, or one like it. If the Constitution permits a State to enact any statute that reasonably furthers its interest in potential life, and if that interest arises as of conception, why would the Texas statute fail to pass muster? One suspects that the plurality agrees. It is impossible to read the plurality opinion and especially its final paragraph, without recognizing its implicit invitation to every State to enact more and more restrictive abortion laws, and to assert their interest in potential life as of the moment of conception. All these laws will satisfy the plurality's nonscrutiny, until sometime, a new regime of old dissenters and new appointees will declare what the plurality intends: that Roe is no longer good law.<11>



Thus, "not with a bang, but a whimper," the plurality discards a landmark case of the last generation, and casts into darkness the hopes and visions of every woman in this country who had come to believe that the Constitution guaranteed her the right to exercise some control over her unique ability to bear children. The plurality does so either oblivious or insensitive to the fact that millions of women, and their families, have ordered their lives around the right to reproductive choice, and that this right has become vital to the full participation of women in the economic and political walks of American life. The plurality would clear the way once again for government to force upon women the physical labor and specific and direct medical and psychological harms that may accompany carrying a fetus to term. The plurality would clear the way again for the State to conscript a woman's body and to force upon her a "distressful life and future." Roe, 410 U.S., at 153.

The result, as we know from experience, see Cates & Rochat, Illegal Abortions in the United States: 1972-1974, 8 Family Planning Perspectives 86, 92 (1976), would be that every year hundreds of thousands of women, in desperation, would defy the law, and place their health and safety in the unclean and unsympathetic hands of back-alley abortionists, or they would attempt to perform abortions upon themselves, [*558] with disastrous results. Every year, many women, especially poor and minority women, would die or suffer debilitating physical trauma, all in the name of enforced morality or religious dictates or lack of compassion, as it may be.

Of the aspirations and settled understandings of American women, of the inevitable and brutal consequences of what it is doing, the tough-approach plurality utters not a word. This silence is callous. It is also profoundly destructive of this Court as an institution. To overturn a constitutional decision is a rare and grave undertaking. To overturn a constitutional decision that secured a fundamental personal liberty to millions of persons would be unprecedented in our 200 years of constitutional history. Although the doctrine of stare decisis applies with somewhat diminished force in constitutional cases generally, ante, at 518, even in ordinary constitutional cases "any departure from ... stare decisis demands special justification." Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U.S. 203, 212 (1984). See also Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U.S. 254, 266 (1986) ("[T]he careful observer will discern that any detours from the straight path of stare decisis in our past have occurred for articulable reasons, and only when the Court has felt obliged 'to bring its opinions into agreement with experience and with facts newly ascertained,'" quoting Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 412 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting)). This requirement of justification applies with unique force where, as here, the Court's abrogation of precedent would destroy people's firm belief, based on past decisions of this Court, that they possess an unabridgeable right to undertake certain conduct.12

[*559] As discussed at perhaps too great length above, the plurality makes no serious attempt to carry "the heavy burden of persuading ... that changes in society or in the law dictate" the abandonment of Roe and its numerous progeny, Vasquez, 474 U.S., at 266, much less the greater burden of explaining the abrogation of a fundamental personal freedom. Instead, the plurality pretends that it leaves Roe standing, and refuses even to discuss the real issue underlying this case: whether the Constitution includes an unenumerated right to privacy that encompasses a woman's right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. To the extent that the plurality does criticize the Roe framework, these criticisms are pure ipse dixit.

This comes at a cost. The doctrine of stare decisis "permits society to presume that bedrock principles are founded in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals, and thereby contributes to the integrity of our constitutional system of government, both in appearance and in fact." 474 U.S., at 265-266. Today's decision involves the most politically divisive domestic legal issue of our time. By refusing to explain or to justify its proposed revolutionary revision in the law of abortion, and by refusing to abide not only by our precedents, but also by our canons for reconsidering those precedents, the plurality invites charges of cowardice and [*560] illegitimacy to our door. I cannot say that these would be undeserved.


For today, at least, the law of abortion stands undisturbed. For today, the women of this Nation still retain the liberty to control their destinies. But the signs are evident and very ominous, and a chill wind blows.


1. Contrary to the Court, I do not see how the preamble, §1.205, realistically may be construed as "abortion-neutral." It declares that "[t]he life of each human being begins at conception" and that "[u]nborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being." Mo. Rev. Stat. §§1.205.1(1) and (2) (1986). By the preamble's specific terms, these declarations apply to all of Missouri's laws which, in turn, are to be interpreted to protect the rights of the unborn to the fullest extent possible under the Constitution of the United States and the decisions of this Court. §1.205.2. As the Court of Appeals concluded, the Missouri Legislature "intended its abortion regulations to be understood against the backdrop of its theory of life." 851 F. 2d 1071, 1076 (CA8 1988). I note the United States' acknowledgment that this backdrop places "a burden of uncertain scope on the performance of abortions by supplying a general principle that would fill in whatever interstices may be present in existing abortion precedents." Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae on behalf of appellants 8-9, n. 5.

In my view, a State may not expand indefinitely the scope of its abortion regulations by creating interests in fetal life that are limited solely by reference to the decisional law of this Court. Such a statutory scheme, whose scope is dependent on the uncertain and disputed limits of our holdings, will have the unconstitutional effect of chilling the exercise of a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy and of burdening the freedom of health professionals to provide abortion services. In this case, moreover, because the preamble defines fetal life as beginning upon "the fertilization of the ovum of a female by a sperm of a male," §188.015(3), the provision also unconstitutionally burdens the use of contraceptive devices, such as the IUD and the "morning after" pill, which may operate to prevent pregnancy only after conception as defined in the statute. See Brief for Association of Reproductive Health Professionals et al. as Amici Curiae 30-39.

The Court upholds §§188.210 and 188.215 on the ground that the constitutionality of these provisions follows from our holdings in Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464 (1977), Poelker v. Doe, 432 U.S. 519 (1977), and Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980). There were strong dissents in all those cases.

Whatever one may think of Maher, Poelker, and Harris, however, they most certainly do not control this case, where the State not only has withdrawn from the business of abortion, but has taken affirmative steps to assure that abortions are not performed by private physicians in private institutions. Specifically, by defining "public facility" as "any public institution, public facility, public equipment, or any physical asset owned, leased, or controlled by this state or any agency or political subdivisions thereof," §188.200, the Missouri statute prohibits the performance of abortions in institutions that in all pertinent respects are private, yet are located on property owned, leased, or controlled by the government. Thus, under the statute, no abortion may be performed at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City -- where, in 1985, 97 percent of all Missouri hospital abortions at 16 weeks or later were performed -- even though the Center is a private hospital, staffed primarily by private doctors, and administered by a private corporation: the Center is located on ground leased from a political subdivision of the State.

The sweeping scope of Missouri's "public facility" provision sharply distinguishes this case from Maher, Poelker, and Harris. In one of those cases, it was said: "The State may have made childbirth a more attractive alternative ... but it ... imposed no restriction on access to abortions that was not already there." Maher, 432 U.S., at 474. Missouri's public facility ban, by contrast, goes far beyond merely offering incentives in favor of childbirth (as in Maher and Harris), or a straightforward disassociation of state-owned institutions and personnel from abortion services (as in Poelker). Here, by defining as "public" every health-care institution with some connection to the State, no matter how attenuated, Missouri has brought to bear the full force of its economic power and control over essential facilities to discourage its citizens from exercising their constitutional rights, even where the State itself could never be understood as authorizing, supporting, or having any other positive association with the performance of an abortion. See R. Dworkin, The Great Abortion Case, New York Review of Books, June 29, 1989, p. 49.

The difference is critical. Even if the State may decline to subsidize or to participate in the exercise of a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy, and even if a State may pursue its own abortion policies in distributing public benefits, it may not affirmatively constrict the availability of abortions by defining as "public" that which in all meaningful respects is private. With the certain knowledge that a substantial percentage of private health-care providers will fall under the public facility ban, see Brief for National Association of Public Hospitals as Amicus Curiae 10-11, Missouri does not "leav[e] a pregnant woman with the same choices as if the State had chosen not to operate any public hospitals at all," ante, at 509; rather, the public facility ban leaves the pregnant woman with far fewer choices, or, for those too sick or too poor to travel, perhaps no choice at all. This aggressive and shameful infringement on the right of women to obtain abortions in consultation with their chosen physicians, unsupported by any state interest, much less a compelling one, violates the command of Roe.

Indeed, Justice O'Connor appears to recognize the constitutional difficulties presented by Missouri's "public facilities" ban, and rejects respondents' "facial" challenge to the provisions on the ground that a facial challenge cannot succeed where, as here, at least some applications of the challenged law are constitutional. Ante, at 523-524. While I disagree with this approach, Justice O'Connor's writing explicitly leaves open the possibility that some applications of the "public facilities" ban may be unconstitutional, regardless of Maher, Poelker, and Harris.

I concur in Part II-C of the Court's opinion, holding that respondents' challenge to §188.205 is moot, although I note that the constitutionality of this provision might become the subject of relitigation between these parties should the Supreme Court of Missouri adopt an interpretation of the provision that differs from the one accepted here. See Deakins v. Monaghan, 484 U.S. 193, 201, n. 5 (1988).

2. I consider irrefutable Justice Stevens' discussion of this interpretive point. See post, at 560-563.

3. The District Court found that "the only method to evaluate [fetal] lung maturity is by amniocentesis," a procedure that "imposes additional significant health risks for both the pregnant woman and the fetus." 662 F. Supp. 407, 422 (WD Mo. 1987). Yet the medical literature establishes that to require amniocentesis for all abortions after 20 weeks would be contrary to sound medical practice and, moreover, would be useless for the purpose of determining lung maturity until no earlier than between 28 and 30 weeks gestational age. Ibid.; see also Brief for American Medical Association et al. as Amici Curiae 41. Thus, were §188.029 read to require a finding of lung maturity, it would require physicians to perform a highly intrusive procedure of risk that would yield no result relevant to the question of viability.

4. I also agree with the Court of Appeals, 851 F. 2d, at 1074-1075, that, as written, §188.029 is contrary to this Court's decision in Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379, 388-389 (1979).

5. The plurality never states precisely its construction of §188.029. I base my synopsis of the plurality's views mainly on its assertion that the entire provision must be read in light of its requirement that the physician act only in accordance with reasonable professional judgment, and that the provision imposes no requirement that a physician perform irrelevant or dangerous tests. Ante, at 514-515. To the extent that the plurality may be reading the provision to require tests other than those that a doctor, exercising reasonable professional judgment, would deem necessary to a finding of viability, the provision bears no rational relation to a legitimate governmental interest, and cannot stand.

6. As convincingly demonstrated by Justice O'Connor, ante, at 527-531, the cases cited by the plurality, are not to the contrary. As noted by the plurality, in both Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S., at 388-389, and Planned Parenthood of Central Mo. v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976), we stressed that the determination of viability is a matter for the judgment of the responsible attending physician. But §188.029, at least as construed by the plurality, is consistent with this requirement. The provision does nothing to remove the determination of viability from the purview of the attending physician; it merely instructs the physician to make a finding of viability using tests to determine gestational age, weight, and lung maturity when such tests are feasible and medically appropriate.

I also see no conflict with the Court's holding in Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc., 462 U.S. 416 (1983), that the State may not impose "a heavy, and unnecessary, burden on women's access to a relatively inexpensive, otherwise accessible, and safe abortion procedure." Id., at 438 (emphasis added). In Akron, we invalidated a city ordinance requiring that all second-trimester abortions be performed in acute-care hospitals on the ground that such a requirement was not medically necessary and would double the cost of abortions. Id., at 434-439. By contrast, the viability determination at issue in this case (as read by the plurality), is necessary to the effectuation of the State's compelling interest in the potential human life of viable fetuses and applies not to all second-trimester abortions, but instead only to that small percentage of abortions performed on fetuses estimated to be of more than 20 weeks gestational age.

7. The plurality, ignoring all of the aforementioned cases except Griswold, responds that this case does not require consideration of the "great issues" underlying this case because Griswold, "unlike Roe, did not purport to adopt a whole framework ... to govern the cases in which the asserted liberty interest would apply." Ante, at 520. This distinction is highly ironic. The Court in Roe adopted the framework of which the plurality complains as a mechanism necessary to give effect both to the constitutional rights of the pregnant woman and to the State's significant interests in maternal health and potential life. Concededly, Griswold does not adopt a framework for determining the permissible scope of state regulation of contraception. The reason is simple: in Griswold (and Eisenstadt), the Court held that the challenged statute, regulating the use of medically safe contraception, did not properly serve any significant state interest. Accordingly, the Court had no occasion to fashion a framework to accommodate a State's interests in regulating contraception. Surely, the plurality is not suggesting that it would find Roe unobjectionable if the Court had forgone the framework and, as in the contraception decisions, had left the State with little or no regulatory authority. The plurality's focus on the framework is merely an excuse for avoiding the real issues embedded in this case and a mask for its hostility to the constitutional rights that Roe recognized.

8. The difference in the Akron and Simopoulos regulatory regimes is stark. The Court noted in Akron that the city ordinance requiring that all second-trimester abortions be performed in acute-care hospitals undoubtedly would have made the procurement of legal abortions difficult and often prohibitively expensive, thereby driving the performance of abortions back underground where they would not be subject to effective regulation. Such a requirement obviously did not further the city's asserted interest in maternal health. 462 U.S., at 420, n. 1. On the other hand, the Virginia law at issue in Simopoulos, by permitting the performance of abortions in licensed out-patient clinics as well as hospitals, did not similarly constrict the availability of legal abortions and, therefore, did not undermine its own stated purpose of protecting maternal health.

9. Notably, neither the plurality nor Justice O'Connor advances the now-familiar catch-phrase criticism of the Roe framework that because the point of viability will recede with advances in medical technology, Roe "is clearly on a collision course with itself." See Akron, 462 U.S., at 458 (dissenting opinion). This critique has no medical foundation. As the medical literature and the amicus briefs filed in this case conclusively demonstrate, "there is an 'anatomic threshold' for fetal viability of about 23-24 weeks of gestation." Brief for American Medical Association et al. as Amici Curiae 7. See also Brief for 167 Distinguished Scientists and Physicians, including 11 Nobel Laureates, as Amici Curiae 8-14. Prior to that time, the crucial organs are not sufficiently mature to provide the mutually sustaining functions that are prerequisite to extrauterine survival, or viability. Moreover, "no technology exists to bridge the development gap between the three-day embryo culture and the 24th week of gestation." Fetal Extrauterine Survivability, Report to the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law 3 (1988). Nor does the medical community believe that the development of any such technology is possible in the foreseeable future. Id., at 12. In other words, the threshold of fetal viability is, and will remain, no different from what it was at the time Roe was decided. Predictions to the contrary are pure science fiction. See Brief for A Group of American Law Professors as Amici Curiae 23-25.

10. Writing for the Court in Akron, Justice Powell observed the same phenomenon, though in hypothetical response to the dissent in that case: "In sum, it appears that the dissent would uphold virtually any abortion regulation under a rational-basis test. It also appears that even where heightened scrutiny is deemed appropriate, the dissent would uphold virtually any abortion-inhibiting regulation because of the State's interest in preserving potential human life. ... This analysis is wholly incompatible with the existence of the fundamental right recognized in Roe v. Wade." 462 U.S., at 420-421, n. 1.

11. The plurality claims that its treatment of Roe, and a woman's right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, "hold[s] true the balance between that which the Constitution puts beyond the reach of the democratic process and that which it does not." Ante, at 521. This is unadulterated nonsense. The plurality's balance matches a lead weight (the State's allegedly compelling interest in fetal life as of the moment of conception) against a feather (a "liberty interest" of the pregnant woman that the plurality barely mentions, much less describes). The plurality's balance -- no balance at all -- places nothing, or virtually nothing, beyond the reach of the democratic process.

Justice Scalia candidly argues that this is all for the best. Ante, at 532. I cannot agree. "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty, and property ... may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections." West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943). In a Nation that cherishes liberty, the ability of a woman to control the biological operation of her body and to determine with her responsible physician whether or not to carry a fetus to term must fall within that limited sphere of individual autonomy that lies beyond the will or the power of any transient majority. This Court stands as the ultimate guarantor of that zone of privacy, regardless of the bitter disputes to which our decisions may give rise. In Roe, and our numerous cases reaffirming Roe, we did no more than discharge our constitutional duty.

12. Cf. South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 805, 824 (1989) (Scalia, J., dissenting) ("[T]he respect accorded prior decisions increases, rather than decreases, with their antiquity, as the society adjusts itself to their existence, and the surrounding law becomes premised on their validity").

Moreover, as Justice Powell wrote for the Court in Akron: "There are especially compelling reasons for adhering to stare decisis in applying the principles of Roe v. Wade. That case was considered with special care. It was first argued during the 1971 Term, and reargued -- with extensive briefing -- the following Term. The decision was joined by The Chief Justice and six other Justices. Since Roe was decided in January 1973, the Court repeatedly and consistently has accepted and applied the basic principle that a woman has a fundamental right to make the highly personal choice whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." 462 U.S., at 420, n. 1. See, e. g., Planned Parenthood of Central Mo. v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976); Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132 (1976); Beal v. Doe, 432 U.S. 438 (1977); Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464 (1977); Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379 (1979); Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622 (1979); Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980); Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc., 462 U.S. 416 (1983); Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 476 U.S. 747 (1986).

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

Pregnant Pause Home Courts Search this site

Posted 9 Sep 2000.

Copyright 2000 by Pregnant Pause
Contact Pregnant Pause