Lamentable Abortion Ruling Harms Women, Bodily Privacy

SAN DIEGO – In upholding a complete ban on a particular abortion procedure, the U.S. Supreme Court has put pregnant women in danger and opened the door to more laws that invade bodily privacy, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties said today.

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gonzalez v. Planned Parenthood and Gonzalez v. Cahart upholds a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2003. Although intended for abortions after 21 weeks of gestation, the ban on dilation and extraction sweeps in a procedure that can be used as early as thirteen weeks and that doctors say is safe and necessary to protect women’s health.

“The opinion ignores the law’s traditional respect for precedents,” said Kevin Keenan, Executive Director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “It is particularly disconcerting that the Court deemed the health of the mother as deserving of less protection.”

Six federal courts have said the contested law is an impermissible restriction on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. Just seven years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a similar abortion ban because it did not allow for exceptions for the woman’s health and safety. This is the first time the high court has upheld a law that bans a method of ending a pregnancy, rather than limiting when an abortion can be performed. In today’s ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the Court assumed that the federal ban would be unconstitutional “if it subjected women to significant health risks,” but that “safe medical options are available.”

“Today’s decision undermines a core principle of Roe v. Wade that women’s health must remain paramount,” said Louise Melling, Director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “The decision invites politicians to meddle even further into the doctor-patient relationship by passing additional restrictions on abortion.”

Leading doctors and medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which represents 90 percent of OB-GYNs in this country, opposed the federal ban.

In a strong dissent, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the ruling “deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety.” The four justices who dissented today’s ruling wrote that it “refuses to take…seriously” previous Supreme Court decisions on abortion, and “tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.” The dissent noted, “[T]he court blesses a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman’s health.”

Justice Ginsburg was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens.

The ACLU expects that today’s ruling will encourage more states to try to place restrictions on abortions. The ACLU believes that a woman’s decision whether or not to bear a child is one of the most intimate and important decisions she will make. Like decisions about contraception, marriage and child-rearing, the decision to continue or to end a pregnancy is protected from government interference by the U.S. Constitution.

In a third case, separate from the two ruled upon today, the ACLU represented the National Abortion Federation and seven physicians. That case, National Abortion Federation v. Gonzales, was put on hold by the Second Circuit pending the outcome of today’s ruling. Today’s Supreme Court decision will dictate an unfavorable ruling in that case as well.

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New York Times editorial

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