Is the Glass Half-Full?: Gonzales v. Carhart and the Future of Abortion Jurisprudence

Harvard Law & Policy Review (Online), Vol. 2, April 9, 2008

15 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2009 Last revised: 10 Jan 2010

See all articles by Priscilla J. Smith

Priscilla J. Smith

Yale Law School - Information Society Project

Date Written: April 9, 2009


In Gonzales v. Carhart, 127 S. Ct. 1610 (2007), the Court reversed course from Stenberg v. Carhart, a decision issued just seven years before and, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Kennedy, upheld the “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003” (“the Act”). The question for advocates after Carhart v. Gonzales is how to prevent the case from being extended by those intent on Roe’s destruction. This paper argues that we must start by illuminating the decision’s limitations, and by recognizing and appealing to the aspect of Justice Kennedy that remains a moderating influence on the other four in his Carhart majority.

The good news is that there is much in the opinion that reaffirms the Casey framework, and much of that framework remains viable and intact. Specifically, this paper argues that Carhart eliminates neither the core decision making aspect of the right to abortion, nor the rule that a state may not restrict access to abortions that are “necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for preservation of the life or health of the mother.” I also argue that the language in Carhart about preventing women from regretting their abortions is sui generis, limited to method bans, like this one, which: 1) the Court believes ban only the intact D&E method of abortion, a procedure the Court finds disgusting and completely without merit for health or any other reasons; and 2) the Court believes would impact only a tiny percentage of abortion procedures, all of which can still be performed by an alternative procedure which the Court believes is just as safe. It is only in these circumstances, and where a regulation does not otherwise impose an undue burden, that “the State may use its regulatory power to bar certain procedures and substitute others.”

Suggested Citation

Smith, Priscilla, Is the Glass Half-Full?: Gonzales v. Carhart and the Future of Abortion Jurisprudence (April 9, 2009). Harvard Law & Policy Review (Online), Vol. 2, April 9, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Priscilla Smith (Contact Author)

Yale Law School - Information Society Project ( email )

Yale Law School
New Haven, CT

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