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Gonzales v. Carhart (2007)

In Brief

Gonzales v. Carhart (2007): Court upholds federal law restricting partial-birth abortion

Congress passed a law banning the use of the partial-birth abortion procedure except where necessary to save the mother's life. The definition of the procedure included delivery of a living child, feet first, until "any part of the fetal trunk past the naval is outside the body of the mother" before performing an overt act to kill him. The law also included Congressional findings that there was a medical consensus that the procedure was never medically necessary.

Before the law took effect, Leroy Carhart and other abortion doctors filed suit seeking to overturn the law on the grounds that it was vague, would cover other methods beyond partial-birth abortion, and that it failed to provide a health exception for non-life-threatening circumstances.

The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court concluded the law was not vague and that the anatomical landmark in the definition ensured that partial-birth abortion was the only procedure within the law's reach.

The Court also noted the brutality of the partial-birth abortion procedure, affirmed the government's authority to foster medical ethics and promote human life and public values by restricting it, and acknowledged that some women suffer after abortion.

Regarding the health exception, the Court acknowledged a lack of consensus about the whether the procedure was ever necessary but ruled that medical uncertainty did not "foreclose the exercise of legislative power." Rather, Congress has the authority to pass rational regulations which are in pursuit of legitimate ends, even if there is medical uncertainty, when other abortion procedures that are considered to be safe alternatives are available.

The Court refused to strike down the law on its face because the challengers did not demonstrate that the law would be unconstitutional in a large fraction of relevant cases. The Court said the proper means to seek an exception to the law would be to file a discrete case showing a particular condition has or is likely to occur in which the procedure must be used.

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