Webster v. Reproductive Health Services

Citation492 U.S. 490,106 L.Ed.2d 410,109 S.Ct. 3040
Decision Date03 July 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-605,88-605
PartiesWilliam L. WEBSTER, Attorney General of Missouri, et al., Appellants v. REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH SERVICES et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

492 U.S. 490
109 S.Ct. 3040
106 L.Ed.2d 410
William L. WEBSTER, Attorney General of Missouri, et al., Appellants



No. 88-605.
Argued April 26, 1989.
Decided July 3, 1989.

Appellees, state-employed health professionals and private nonprofit corporations providing abortion services, brought suit in the District Court for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the constitutionality of a Missouri statute regulating the performance of abortions. The statute, inter alia: (1) sets forth "findings" in its preamble that "[t]he life of each human being begins at conception," and that "unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being," §§ 1.205.1(1), (2), and requires that all state laws be interpreted to provide unborn children with the same rights enjoyed by other persons, subject to the Federal Constitution and this Court's precedents, § 1.205.2; (2) specifies that a physician, prior to performing an abortion on any woman whom he has reason to believe is 20 or more weeks pregnant, must ascertain whether the fetus is "viable" by performing "such medical examinations and tests as are necessary to make a finding of [the fetus'] gestational age, weight, and lung maturity," § 188.029; (3) prohibits the use of public employees and facilities to perform or assist abortions not necessary to save the mother's life, §§ 188.210, 188.215; and (4) makes it unlawful to use public funds, employees, or facilities for the purpose of "encouraging or counseling" a woman to have an abortion not necessary to save her life, §§ 188.205, 188.210, 188.215. The District Court struck down each of the above provisions, among others, and enjoined their enforcement. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that the provisions in question violated this Court's decisions in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S.Ct. 705, 35 L.Ed.2d 147 and subsequent cases.

Held: The judgment is reversed.

851 F.2d 1071 (CA8), reversed.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, II-B, and II-C, concluding that:

1. This Court need not pass on the constitutionality of the Missouri statute's preamble. In invalidating the preamble, the Court of Appeals misconceived the meaning of the dictum in Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc., 462 U.S. 416, 444, 103 S.Ct. 2481, 2500, 76 L.Ed.2d 687, that "a State may not adopt one theory of when life begins to justify its regulation of abor-

Page 491

tions." That statement means only that a State could not "justify" any abortion regulation otherwise invalid under Roe v. Wade on the ground that it embodied the State's view about when life begins. The preamble does not by its terms regulate abortions or any other aspect of appellees' medical practice, and § 1.205.2 can be interpreted to do no more than offer protections to unborn children in tort and probate law, which is permissible under Roe v. Wade, supra, 410 U.S., at 161-162, 93 S.Ct., at 730-731. This Court has emphasized that Roe implies no limitation on a State's authority to make a value judgment favoring childbirth over abortion, Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464, 474, 97 S.Ct. 2376, 2382-83, 53 L.Ed.2d 484, and the preamble can be read simply to express that sort of value judgment. The extent to which the preamble's language might be used to interpret other state statutes or regulations is something that only the state courts can definitively decide, and, until those courts have applied the preamble to restrict ppellees' activities in some concrete way, it is inappropriate for federal courts to address its meaning. Alabama State Federation of Labor v. McAdory, 325 U.S. 450, 460, 65 S.Ct. 1384, 1389, 89 L.Ed. 1725. Pp. 504-507.

2. The restrictions in §§ 188.210 and 188.215 of the Missouri statute on the use of public employees and facilities for the performance or assistance of nontherapeutic abortions do not contravene this Court's abortion decisions. The Due Process Clauses generally confer no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests of which the government may not deprive the individual. DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 196, 109 S.Ct. 998, 1003, 103 L.Ed.2d 249. Thus, in Maher v. Roe, supra; Poelker v. Doe, 432 U.S. 519, 97 S.Ct. 2391, 53 L.Ed.2d 528; and Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297, 100 S.Ct. 2671, 65 L.Ed.2d 784, this Court upheld governmental regulations withholding public funds for nontherapeutic abortions but allowing payments for medical services related to childbirth, recognizing that a government's decision to favor childbirth over abortion through the allocation of public funds does not violate Roe v. Wade. A State may implement that same value judgment through the allocation of other public resources, such as hospitals and medical staff. There is no merit to the claim that Maher, Poelker, and McRae must be distinguished on the grounds that preventing access to a public facility narrows or forecloses the availability of abortion. Just as in those cases, Missouri's decision to use public facilities and employees to encourage childbirth over abortion places no governmental obstacle in the path of a woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy, but leaves her with the same choices as if the State had decided not to operate any hospitals at all. The challenged provisions restrict her ability to obtain an abortion only to the extent that she chooses to use a physician affiliated with a public hospital. Also without merit is the assertion that-

Page 492

Maher, Poelker, and McRae must be distinguished on the ground that, since the evidence shows that all of a public facility's costs in providing abortion services are recouped when the patient pays such that no public funds are expended, the Missouri statute goes beyond expressing a preference for childbirth over abortion by creating an obstacle to the right to choose abortion that cannot stand absent a compelling state interest. Nothing in the Constitution requires States to enter or remain in the abortion business or entitles private physicians and their patients access to public facilities for the performance of abortions. Indeed, if the State does recoup all of its costs in performing abortions and no state subsidy, direct or indirect, is available, it is difficult to see how any procreational choice is burdened by the State's ban on the use of its facilities or employees for performing abortions. The cases in question all support the view that the State need not commit any resources to performing abortions, even if it can turn a profit by doing so. Pp. 507-511.

3. The controversy over § 188.205's prohibition on the use of public funds to encourage or counsel a woman to have a nontherapeutic abortion is moot. The Court of Appeals did not consider § 188.205 separately from §§ 188.210 and 188.215—which respectively prohibit the use of public employees and facilities for such counseling—in holding all three sections unconstitutionally vague and violative of a woman's right to choose an abortion. Missouri has appealed only the invalidation of § 188.205. In light of the State's claim, which this Court accepts for purposes of decision, that § 188.205 is not directed at the primary conduct of physicians or health care providers, but is simply an instruction to the State's fiscal officers not to allocate public funds for abortion counseling, appellees contend that the are not "adversely" affected by the section and therefore that there is no longer a case or controversy before the Court on this question. Since plaintiffs are masters of their complaints even at the appellate stage, and since appellees no longer seek equitable relief on their § 188.205 claim, the Court of Appeals is directed to vacate the District Court's judgment with instructions to dismiss the relevant part of the complaint with prejudice. Deakins v. Monaghan, 484 U.S. 193, 200, 108 S.Ct. 523, 528, 98 L.Ed.2d 529. Pp. 511-513.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE, joined by Justice WHITE and Justice KENNEDY, concluded in Parts II-D and III that:

1. Section 188.029 of the Missouri statute—which specifies, in its first sentence, that a physician, before performing an abortion on a woman he has reason to believe is carrying an unborn child of 20 or more weeks gestational age, shall first determine if the unborn child is viable by using that degree of care, skill, and proficiency that is commonly exercised by practitioners in the field; but which then provides, in its second sentence, that, in making the viability determination, the physician shall

Page 493

perform such medical examinations and tests as are necessary to make a finding of the unborn child's gestational age, weight, and lung maturity—is constitutional, since it permissibly furthers the State's interest in protecting potential human life. Pp. 513-521.

(a) The Court of Appeals committed plain error in reading § 188.029 as requiring that after 20 weeks the specified tests must be performed. That section makes sense only if its second sentence is read to require only those tests that are useful in making subsidiary viability findings. Reading the sentence to require the tests in all circumstances, including when the physician's reasonable professional judgment indicates that they would be irrelevant to determining viability or even dangerous to the mother and the fetus, would conflict with the first sentence's requirement that the physician apply his reasonable professional skill and judgment. It would also be incongruous to read the provision, especially the word "necessary," to require tests irrelevant to the expressed statutory purpose of determining viability. Pp. 514-515.

(b) Section 188.029 is reasonably designed to ensure that abortions are not performed where the fetus is viable. The section's tests are intended to determine...

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