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The United States Supreme Court has heard two cases challenging the constitutionality of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

Oral arguments for both cases were heard by the Court on November 8, the day after the 2006 elections. The Court's decision to uphold the ban on partial-birth abortion was handed down on April 18, 2007.

Text of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the ban - pdf format (April 18, 2007)

Press release regarding the Court's decision to uphold the ban  (April 18, 2007)

Comments from Fr. Frank Pavone on the Court's decision to uphold the ban (April 18, 2007)

Comments from President Bush on the Court's decision to uphold the ban (April 18, 2007)

More information on the November 8, 2006 oral arguments

Click here to read the oral arguments: Gonzales vs. Carhart and Gonzales vs. Planned Parenthood (PDF format)

Click here to listen to the oral arguments

The first case is Gonzales v. Carhart (Supreme Court Docket No. 05-380) [PDF Format].   If the name Carhart sounds familiar, it's because Dr. Leroy Carhart, an abortionist, brought suit against Nebraska's state ban on partial-birth abortions in 1997. That case resulted in the 2000 Supreme Court decision, Stenberg v. Carhart, striking down Nebraska's law on a five to four vote.  Since then, the Stenberg decision has resulted in several state partial-birth abortion bans being declared unconstitutional.

In this current case, Dr. Carhart and three other abortion providers brought suit in the federal courts' Eighth District immediately after President George Bush signed the federal partial-birth abortion ban into law on November 5, 2003. The question the Court considered here is whether the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is invalid because it lacks a health exception or is otherwise unconstitutional on its face.

The federal partial-birth abortion law contains an exception for when the life of the mother is threatened, but no "health" exception. This is because after nine years of debate, hearings, and evidence examination, Congress found that partial-birth abortions are never necessary to preserve a mother's health.

Stenberg v. Carhart, however, requires a statute regulating an abortion procedure to contain a health exception as long as "'substantial medical authority' supports the medical necessity of [the] procedure in some instances." Abortionists argue that such medical authority exists even though Congress found that it doesn't. Gonzales v. Carhart will decide, then, whether a partial-birth abortion law must contain a "health of the mother" exception. This is a crucial point, obviously, because the Court in Doe v. Bolton defined "health" as including "emotional" and "psychological" factors, meaning that any abortion would be allowed under a general "health" exception.

The second case before the Court was Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood (Supreme Court Docket No. 05-1382) [PDF Format]. This lawsuit was brought by Planned Parenthood Federation, Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, and the City and County of San Francisco. Like Gonzales v. Carhart, it was filed immediately after President Bush signed the federal partial-birth abortion bill into law. The Supreme Court heard it on appeal from a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.

The questions presented in Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood are the same as the ones in Gonzales v. Carhart. In addition to determining whether a "health" exception is necessary in the federal partial-birth abortion ban, the court also examined if the law is invalid "on its face" (i.e., as it's written). Abortionists argue that the federal law is ambiguous in its language so that it may bar other types of abortions besides partial-birth abortions. They say that this ambiguity constitutes an undue burden on the "right" to abortion and makes the law unconstitutionally vague.

The two cases are being closely watched for many reasons, not the least of which is that they will provide a strong indication of how the two newest members of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, view abortion and the Constitution. As mentioned above, the Stenberg decision striking down Nebraska's partial-birth abortion law was a five-to-four ruling. The swing vote in that case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, has retired. How President Bush's two new Justices vote on Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood will likely be decisive in whether the federal partial-birth abortion ban will be upheld.

The third case striking down the ban, but not taken up by the Supreme Court, is National Abortion Federation v Gonzales (pdf format)

Click here for Fr. Frank's reflections on the November 8th oral arguments

Briefs of the Parties (PDF format)

Government's brief in Gonzales vs. Carhart

Respondents' brief in Gonzales vs. Carhart

Government's brief in Gonzales vs. Planned Parenthood

Respondents' brief in Gonzales vs. Planned Parenthood

Oral Arguments (PDF format)

Gonzales vs. Carhart

Gonzales vs. Planned Parenthood

Amicus curiae (Friend of the Court) briefs submitted for the November 8 Supreme Court oral arguments: (PDF format)

American Center for Law and Justice

American Center for Law and Justice 2

Association of Pro-Life Physicians

Christian Legal Society

Catholic Medical and Dental Association and the Catholic Medical Association

Faith and Action


National Legal Foundation

Professor Hadley Arkes

Family Research Council

More Reading:

Partial-Birth Abortion Trial Transcripts

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