Stenberg v. Carhart
Annotate this Case
530 U.S. 914 (2000)
OCTOBER TERM, 1999
STENBERG, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEBRASKA, ET AL. v. CARHART
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT
No. 99-830. Argued April 25, 2000-Decided June 28, 2000
The Constitution offers basic protection to a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion. Roe v. Wade, 410 U. S. 113; Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833. Before fetal viability, a woman has a right to terminate her pregnancy, id., at 870 (plurality opinion), and a state law is unconstitutional if it imposes on the woman's decision an "undue burden," i. e., if it has the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the woman's path, id., at 877. Postviability, the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where "necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the [mother's] life or health." E. g., id., at 879. The Nebraska law at issue prohibits any "partial birth abortion" unless that procedure is necessary to save the mother's life. It defines "partial birth abortion" as a procedure in which the doctor "partially delivers vaginally a living unborn child before killing the ... child," and defines the latter phrase to mean "intentionally delivering into the vagina a living unborn child, or a substantial portion thereof, for the purpose of performing a procedure that the [abortionist] knows will kill the ... child and does kill the ... child." Violation of the law is a felony, and it provides for the automatic revocation of a convicted doctor's state license to practice medicine. Respondent Carhart, a Nebraska physician who performs abortions in a clinical setting, brought this suit seeking a declaration that the statute violates the Federal Constitution. The District Court held the statute unconstitutional. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.
Held: Nebraska's statute criminalizing the performance of "partial birth abortion[s]" violates the Federal Constitution, as interpreted in Casey and Roe. Pp. 922-946.
(a) Because the statute seeks to ban one abortion method, the Court discusses several different abortion procedures, as described in the evidence below and the medical literature. During a pregnancy's second trimester (12 to 24 weeks), the most common abortion procedure is "dilation and evacuation" (D&E), which involves dilation of the cervix, removal of at least some fetal tissue using nonvacuum surgical instruments, and (after the 15th week) the potential need for instrumental
dismemberment of the fetus or the collapse of fetal parts to facilitate evacuation from the uterus. When such dismemberment is necessary, it typically occurs as the doctor pulls a portion of the fetus through the cervix into the birth canal. The risks of mortality and complication that accompany D&E are significantly lower than those accompanying induced labor procedures (the next safest midsecond trimester procedures). A variation of D&E, known as "intact D&E," is used after 16 weeks. It involves removing the fetus from the uterus through the cervix "intact," i. e., in one pass rather than several passes. The intact D&E proceeds in one of two ways, depending on whether the fetus presents head first or feet first. The feet-first method is known as "dilation and extraction" (D&X). D&X is ordinarily associated with the term "partial birth abortion." The District Court concluded that clear and convincing evidence established that Carhart's D&X procedure is superior to, and safer than, the D&E and other abortion procedures used during the relevant gestational period in the 10 to 20 cases a year that present to Carhart. Moreover, materials presented at trial emphasize the potential benefits of the D&X procedure in certain cases. Pp. 923-929.
(b) The Nebraska statute lacks the requisite exception "for the preservation of the ... health of the mother." Casey, supra, at 879 (plurality opinion). The State may promote but not endanger a woman's health when it regulates the methods of abortion. Pp. 929-938.
(i) The Court rejects Nebraska's contention that there is no need for a health exception here because safe alternatives remain available and a ban on partial birth abortionJD&X would create no risk to women's health. The parties strongly contested this factual question in the District Court; and the findings and evidence support Dr. Carhart. Pp. 931-933.
(ii) Nebraska and its supporting amici respond with eight arguments as to why the District Court's findings are irrelevant, wrong, or applicable only in a tiny number of instances. Pp. 933-934.
(iii) The eight arguments are insufficient to demonstrate that Nebraska's law needs no health exception. For one thing, certain of the arguments are beside the point. The D&X procedure's relative rarity (argument (1)) is not highly relevant. The State cannot prohibit a person from obtaining treatment simply by pointing out that most people do not need it. And the fact that only a "handful" of doctors use the procedure (argument (2)) may reflect the comparative rarity of late second term abortions, the procedure's recent development, the controversy surrounding it, or, as Nebraska suggests, the procedure's lack of utility. For another thing, the record responds to Nebraska's (and amici's) medically based arguments. As to argument (3), the District