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Doe v. Bolton

Significance

Before 1973, the legality of abortion was left to the legislatures of the states. However, in 1973, the Supreme Court made it an issue of federal constitutional law by holding that abortion was a constitutional right. From then on, whether abortion was legal or not depended on the Supreme Court's decisions.

Mary Doe was a 22 year old resident of Georgia, married, and nine weeks pregnant. She already had three children. The two older ones had been placed in a foster home because Doe was poor and unable to care for them. The youngest had been put up for adoption. Doe's husband had recently abandoned her, forcing her to live with her impoverished parents and their eight children. Doe and her husband, a sporadically employed construction worker, eventually reconciled. Doe had been a mental patient at the state hospital. She had been told that an abortion would be less dangerous to her health than giving birth to the child she carried. Moreover, if she gave birth to the child, she would be unable to care for or support it.

On 25 March 1970, Doe applied for an abortion to the Abortion Committee of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Her application was denied on the ground that her situation was not described in Georgia's abortion law. This law allowed abortions only if a continued pregnancy would endanger a pregnant woman's life or injure her health; the fetus would be born with a serious defect; or the pregnancy resulted from rape.

Mary Doe and nine physicians brought a federal action in the Northern District of Georgia against the state's attorney general, the district attorney of Fulton County, and the chief of police of Atlanta. Doe wanted the court to declare that the Georgia abortion laws were unconstitutional in their entirety. She also wanted an injunction restraining the defendants from enforcing the abortion statutes. Doe alleged in her suit that because her application for an abortion was denied, she was forced either to relinquish "her right to decide when and how many children she will bear" or seek an abortion that was illegal. This invaded her rights of privacy and liberty in matters relating to family, marriage, and sex, and deprived her of the right to choose whether to bear children. This violated the rights guaranteed by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The Georgia abortion laws also denied her equal protection and procedural due process and, because they were unconstitutionally vague, deterred hospitals and doctors from performing abortions. The doctors in the suit alleged that the Georgia laws "chilled and deterred" them from practicing their profession and deprived them of the rights guaranteed by the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

The district court ruled that limiting the reasons why an abortion may be sought improperly restricted Doe's right of privacy and of personal liberty, which should include the decision to abort a pregnancy. Thus the court held invalid the part of the law that limited abortions to three situations, but refused to issue an injunction. The court, however, held that Georgia's interest in protection of health and the existence of a "potential of independent human existence" justified state regulation of "the manner of performance as well as the quality of the final decision to abort." The court refused to strike down the provisions of the statute that required a woman wanting an abortion: to be a resident of Georgia; to get two other physicians to approve the procedure; to have the abortion performed in a hospital accredited by the joint Commission of Accreditation of Hospitals; and to have the abortion approved by a hospital committee.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Doe v. Bolton - Significance, Health Includes Physical, Emotional, And Psychological Well-being, The Issue Should Be Left To The People