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United States v. Vuitch

The People V. Leon P. Belous

Douglas also mentioned People v. Leon P. Belous (1969). This case involved California physician Belous, who had practiced medicine for 35 years and had performed abortions during many of those years. A California court convicted Belous in 1967 for violating the state's anti-abortion law (before the passage of a new reform law). The court found him guilty of having accepted a kickback from another doctor to whom he had referred a pregnant student.

Belous appealed to the three-judge panel of the Second District Court of Appeals, but the panel affirmed the lower court's ruling, believing the physician had indeed accepted kickbacks. Belous then hired civil rights attorneys A. L. Wirin and Fred Okrand to appeal his case to the California Supreme Court. California abortion rights activists quickly rallied around him, believing his case would prove to the state's high court that anti-abortion laws were unconstitutional. The attorneys believed that the principles of 1964's Griswold v. Connecticut should protect a woman's privacy and personal autonomy in child-bearing. They also felt that states should not interfere with a doctor-patient relationship when it came to the termination of a pregnancy.

Oral arguments took place on 4 March 1969, before the seven-judge California Supreme Court. On 5 September, the court handed down its much anticipated decision. By a vote of 4-3, Raymond A. Peter's majority overturned the conviction of Belous because California's pre-1967 antiabortion law was too vague to be constitutional.

The old law had allowed women to end their pregnancies in only one instance: when necessary to preserve a woman's life. The words "necessary" and "preserve" were unconstitutionally vague. The court explained: "A showing of immediacy or certainty of death is not essential for a lawful abortion."

The majority also ruled that "The fundamental right of women to choose whether to bear children follows from the Supreme Court's and this court's repeated acknowledgment of a `right to privacy' or `liberty' in matters related to marriage, family, and sex." The court listed Griswold v. Connecticut (1964) among other precedents for its decision.

As an ironic footnote, in the District of Columbia, the Supreme Court's overturning of United States v. Vuitch in 1971 and upholding of the original law restricting abortion yielded greater access to abortion than ever before. As Vuitch emphasized, "This is a big step forward. Now the government lawyer will be in the position of challenging my medical decision. What are the jury members going to decide when a lawyer tries to tell them that the doctor is wrong about a medical matter? What the Supreme Court did," he pointed out, "was throw the whole mess on the shoulders of American physicians; and that is the correct position."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972United States v. Vuitch - Significance, Is The Abortion Law Constitutional?, Opinion Of The Minority, The People V. Leon P. Belous