Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth 428 U.S. 52 (1976)

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Following ROE V. WADE (1973), Missouri adopted a comprehensive law regulating abortion. Planned Parenthood, which operated an abortion clinic, and two eminent physicians sued in federal district court challenging the constitutionality of most of the law's provisions. On appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld three of the state's requirements and by divided vote invalidated four others. Justice harry a. blackmun wrote for the Court.

The Court sustained the law's definition of "viability" of a fetus: "when the life of the unborn child may be continued indefinitely outside the womb by natural or artificial life-supportive systems." The state's failure to set a specific time period survived a challenge for vagueness; the Court assumed that the physician retained the power to determine viability. The Court also upheld a requirement of written certification by a woman of her "informed" consent to an abortion, and certain record-keeping requirements.

The Court invalidated, 6–3, a requirement of consent to an abortion by the husband of the pregnant woman, and invalidated, 5–4, a parental consent requirement for unmarried women under age eighteen. Recognizing the husband's strong interest in the abortion decision, the Court concluded that when spouses disagreed, only one of them could prevail; that one must be the woman. As for parental consent, the opinion offered no broad charter of children'srights but concluded that a "mature" minor's right to have an abortion must prevail over a parent's contrary decision (H. L. v. Matheson, 1981). The state had little hope of restoring a family structure already "fractured" by such a conflict.

The Court invalidated, 6–3, a prohibition on saline amniocentesis as an abortion technique. The procedure was used in more than two-thirds of all abortions following the first trimester of pregnancy; its prohibition would undermine Roe. Finally, the state had required a physician performing an abortion to use professional skill and care to preserve the life and health of a fetus. The requirement was held invalid, 6–3, because it was not limited to the time following the stage of fetal viability.

The question of the doctor's role in determining viability and preserving fetal life returned to the Court in Colautti v. Franklin (1979). There the Court invalidated, 6–3, on vagueness grounds, a Pennsylvania law requiring a doctor to exercise care to protect a fetus when there was "sufficient reason to believe that the fetus may be viable." As in Roe and Danforth, the Court paid considerable deference to physicians, leaving undefined their control over their patients' constitutional rights.

Kenneth L. Karst

(see also: Reproductive Autonomy.)


Cohen, Leslie Ann 1980 Fetal Viability and Individual Autonomy: Resolving Medical and Legal Standards for Abortion. UCLA Law Review 27:1340–1364.

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Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth 428 U.S. 52 (1976)

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