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Planned Parenthood V. Danforth
In 1976, Missouri presented the Supreme Court with a much-anticipated challenge to Roe V. Wade
The Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia, Missouri was the appellant in the 1976 Supreme Court case. Courtesy of Shutterstock.
Roe V. Wade was passed in 1973 and some of the states immediately aimed to restrict abortion access.
Many were initially from Northeastern states.
Daniel K. Williams notes this in The Atlantic:
This was not merely a geographic shift, trading one region for another, but a more fundamental transformation of the anti-abortion movement’s political ideology. In 1973 many of the most vocal opponents of abortion were northern Democrats who believed in an expanded social-welfare state and who wanted to reduce abortion rates through prenatal insurance and federally funded day care. In 2022, most anti-abortion politicians are conservative Republicans who are skeptical of such measures. What happened was a seismic religious and political shift in opposition to abortion that has not occurred in any other Western country.
Before the mid-1970s, active opposition to abortion in the United States looked almost exactly like opposition to abortion in Britain, Western Europe, and Australia: It was concentrated mainly among Catholics. As late as 1980, 70 percent of the members of the nation’s largest anti-abortion organization, the National Right to Life Committee, were Catholic. As a result, the states that were most resistant to abortion legalization were, in most cases, the states with the highest concentration of Catholics, most of which were in the North and leaned Democratic.
In Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri V. Danforth, the Show-Me state’s law added a number of restrictions to the accessibility of the procedure. There were provisions that called for signed consent forms from the patient and from legal guardians or a legal spouse. Physicians would be required to exercise professional care of a fetus with the risk of being charged with manslaughter. The law also included a provision that called for detailed recordkeeping. It banned the use of saline amniocenteses after the first 12 weeks.
Two physicians and a Planned Parenthood clinic in Central Missouri sued the Attorney General of Missouri, John Danforth, over the constitutionality of the restrictions days after House Bill 1211 was passed in June of 1974.
David Hall and Michael Freiman were physicians who had performed and supervised abortion care at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia and in several hospitals in St. Louis. They argued against the law’s definition of viability which was broad since it focused on a fetus living outside the womb “indefinitely” and not whether it would have any sort of prolonged life.
Attorney General Danforth argued, perhaps paternalistically, that these laws were making sure women were taking their decision into careful consideration.
The law survived at the district court with a divided panel of judges. The Supreme Court took up the case on a direct appeal knowing this type of case would appear.
Many of the same arguments around the definition of viability were repeated along with Planned Parenthood also appealing to the high court by citing the impact of their Roe decision - lower maternal mortality and the lowering rates of unsafe abortions.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled some provisions acceptable and others not so. They released their opinion on July 1, 1976, with Justice Harry Blackmun writing the court’s opinion with other justices delivering their own opinions.
In a 6-3 decision, the majority of the court disagreed with most parts of the law but agreed with extensive recordkeeping and written consent from the patient. The Supreme Court found a law requiring physicians to care for surviving fetuses at any stage of the pregnancy unconstitutional and that the ban on saline amniocenteses was also unconstitutional - since it failed to take into account a woman’s health after 12 weeks of pregnancy.
The high court found having to require consent from a spouse or parent was unconstitutional.
It was in violation of Roe’s protections to give a woman undue access to an abortion in the first trimester. The majority of the court found the parental consent clause too broad to enforce on all minors in very different situations.
Justices Byron White, Warren E. Burger, and William Rehnquist disagreed with the reigning opinion on spousal and parental consent and on surviving fetal care. Justice White’s opinion argued parental consent was a way to protect minors in making a major decision. As minors can often be rash. White also viewed the part of the law requiring physicians to care for the fetus as a way of ensuring the safety of procedures by taking into account the fetus’ survivability.
The informed consent and recordkeeping requirements were all that was left of HB 1211 after facing the Supreme Court of the United States.
After Roe, there was still a blatant ideological dividing line. The rapidity of state-level challenges to the decision would obviously not stop there. Justice William Rehnquist would go on to see the court change towards a more “pro-life” bias, while Justice Blackmun has the opposite experience.
For many conservatives, Roe was never a settled law. (In 2017, a proposed Oklahoma law would require written consent from the fetus’ father before the abortion can take place.)
Instead of seeing this moment as a leap forward for baseline legal structures that provide health needs for women, many pro-life advocates want to allow for a stark reversal on health accessibility in specific parts of the nation.
There are many things that cutting access fails to consider in the often traumatic journey to the abortion clinic.
It is this lack of empathy that seeps out of Alito’s opinion and that has mired the conservative’s ability to not come off horrifically biased when communicating a sensitive opinion.
Roe is settled law.
Overturning this Supreme Court precedent, like overturning an election, is rather dangerous to our civic core.
Conversations around these topics have often neglected the voices of women and, unfortunately, have involved demagogic attempts to foster fear and contempt rather than empathy and understanding.
This policy discussion is about access to health care while being realistic about the causes. Today, we still harbor a deep misunderstanding and lack of concern for women’s health needs and our collective biology.
Many states have “trigger bans” in place. These laws would go off in the case of SCOTUS overturning Roe. Ohio has been debating over a heartbeat bill that was stalled by a federal court.
Republican Governor Mike DeWine has said he would sign a total abortion ban that would be triggered by the overturning of Roe.
Mike DeWine is also running for reelection this fall against Nan Whaley.
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