Court upholds ‘partial-birth abortion’ ban

The United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on April 18, 2007, in Gonzales v. Carhart that the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, a federal law banning the so-called “partial-birth abortion” procedure, does not violate a woman’s right to an abortion. The ruling was considered a victory for abortion opponents. The procedure, usually carried out in the second or third trimester of a pregnancy, is so controversial that there is no agreement on what to call it. Opponents use the term “partial-birth” or “late-term” abortion, while medical professionals prefer the technical term “intact dilation and extraction,” or D&X. The federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 banned the procedure and imposed jail terms of up to two years for doctors who use it.

In mid-June 2013, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweaked language in his proposed Women’s Equality Act in response to some people’s worry that the bill would leave the door open for “partial-birth” abortions to be performed in New York. On June 20, 2013, the Women’s Equality Act passed the New York Assembly by a vote of 97-47. The State Senate, however, passed only nine of the 10 provisions, refusing to pass the abortion provision.


Why it matters

Religious belief drives much of the action and opinions on abortion, which continues to be one of the most emotional and divisive issues in the country. Continued widespread opposition to partial-birth abortions could lead to a challenge of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. The graphic nature of the procedure and its use in the later stages of a pregnancy – aspects that have been highlighted by opponents – have led to many Americans and politicians who support abortion rights or consider themselves neutral to recalibrate their positions, if only on this aspect of the issue.


The procedure now known as intact dilation and extraction (D&X) originated in the early 1980s as a modification of the dilation and evacuation technique (D&E) already in use. In D&E, the cervix is dilated and the fetus removed in sections with forceps and suction. In D&X, the fetus is removed without being dismembered, although the head may be punctured or crushed to allow it to pass through the cervix. According to Dr. LeRoy Carhart, one of those who sued to overturn the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, it is not uncommon for the intact fetus to pass out of the woman while the physician is attempting a D&E. Physicians maintain that they need to decide on the exact method to use based on circumstances that develop during the surgery. D&X is said to have the advantages of subjecting the woman to fewer passes of instruments into the uterus and less risk of puncture by bone.

Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003

The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 was passed by Congress with a number of Democrats joining solid Republican majorities. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law in November 2003.

  • The U.S. Senate website has the roll call on the vote.
  • The Library of Congress website offers a complete summary of the bill and related information.
  • The law was immediately challenged, and two federal courts deemed it unconstitutional: the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The 8th Circuit’s ruling was based largely on the law’s lack of a health exception for a mother. The 9th Circuit ruled that the law imposes “an undue burden” on a woman’s right to end her pregnancy and therefore was unconstitutional.
  • Wikipedia has an article on the law that recounts the chronology of the issue. Wikipedia is a contributor-based compilation whose entries can change daily. Statements on the site should be double-checked.

Supreme Court cases

In 2006, the United States Supreme Court heard two cases challenging the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003: Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood.

  • Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

    The Pew Forum on Religion Religion & Public Life is a project of the Pew Research Center. The Pew Forum seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs by conducting surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world.

    The Forum offers a legal backgrounder on the two “partial-birth” abortion cases as well as a page on abortion laws around the world.

State abortion laws

While much attention has been paid to the federal law banning so-called “partial-birth” abortions, many states have enacted their own laws on the matter.

Religious groups on abortion

  • attempts to disseminate accurate religious information, expose religious fraud, hatred and misinformation, disseminate information on religious hot topics and promote religious topic.

    The site offers a backgrounder on the views on abortion by various religious and secular groups and a listing of statements on abortion from various faith groups and other organizations.

  • Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice

    The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington, D.C., pushes for more health care options for women, not fewer. It sponsors a National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality each year. Michael Mitchell is director of communications.

    The coalition lists official resolutions of religious groups that support the right to abortion.

  • Southern Baptist Convention

    The Southern Baptist Convention, with about 16 million members, is the largest group within the evangelical world, as well as the second-largest faith group in America (behind Catholics).

    The SBC posts its resolutions on abortion on its website.

    Contact: 615-244-2355.

Articles and publications

Additional legal resources

  • Supreme Court of the United States

    The official website of the Supreme Court of the United States posts background information about the court, as well as court decisions and arguments.

    Contact: 202-479-3000.
  • United States courts

    The website of the federal judiciary — which includes the U.S. Court of Appeals, district courts and bankruptcy courts — posts court records, judicial statistics and information on judges. Contact through the website.

  • post links to case law and texts. Contact through the website.

National sources

  • Alan Abramowitz

    Alan Abramowitz is a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert on abortion politics.

  • Randy E. Barnett

    Randy E. Barnett is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at Georgetown University. He is an expert in constitutional law and contracts.

  • Michele Dillon

    Michele Dillon is associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She wrote “The American Abortion Debate: Culture War or Normal Discourse?” for the book The American Culture Wars: Current Contests and Future Prospects (University of Virginia Press, 1996). She is the author of Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith and Power.

  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is a professor of psychology, sociology and social work at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. She is the author of The Politics of Abortion (Encounter Books, 2006).

  • Ted G. Jelen

    Ted G. Jelen is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has followed religion and politics, including the participation of the Catholic Church and the role abortion politics plays. He co-edited the books Abortion Politics in the United States: Studies in Public Opinion and The One, the Few and the Many: Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective. He also co-wrote the book Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion.

  • Melody Rose

    Melody Rose is the Vice Provost for Academic Programs and Instruction at Portland State University. She is also the founder of The Center for Women, Politics & Policy and the founder and director of the National Education for Women’s Leadership Oregon, and she is the author of Abortion: A Documentary and Reference Guide (2008) and Safe, Legal and Unavailable?: Abortion Politics in the United States.

  • Laurence H. Tribe

    Laurence H. Tribe is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University. Tribe’s areas of expertise include abortion and church-state issues. He wrote the book Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes.

  • James Trussell

    James Trussell is a professor of economics and public affairs and faculty associate with the Office of Population Research at Princeton University in New Jersey. He has an expertise in abortion and advocates making emergency contraception widely available as a means of reducing unintended pregnancies and runs a website on the topic.

  • J. Matthew Wilson

    J. Matthew Wilson is an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His interests include religion and politics, and voting behavior of religious voters.

  • Susan Low Bloch

    Susan Low Bloch is a law professor at Georgetown University. She is an expert in constitutional law, communications law and courts and judges and she teaches a seminar on the Supreme Court.

    She has written on the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding abortion.

National organizations

Opposed to abortion rights

  • Deirdre McQuade

    Deirdre McQuade is assistant director for policy and communications for the Pro-Life Secretariat of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  • Frederica Mathewes-Green

    Frederica Mathewes-Green, of Baltimore, is a columnist and Orthodox Christian. She is author of Real Choices: Listening to Women; Looking for Alternatives to Abortion (Conciliar Press, 1997). She is also a pro-life advocate. Contact her via the form on her website.

  • Penny Young Nance

    Penny Young Nance is CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, a women’s group committed to bringing biblical principles into all levels of public policy.

  • Paul T. Stallsworth

    The Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth is president of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality and the editor of its magazine, Lifewatch. He lives in Whiteville, N.C.

  • Troy Newman

    Troy Newman is president of Operation Rescue. The organization is known for buying and subsequently closing an abortion clinic in Wichita, Kan., and it now uses the building as its headquarters.

    Contact: 316-841-1700.
  • Jay Sekulow

    Jay Sekulow is chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C., a leading pro-life religious legal advocacy group that frequently litigates on behalf of religious groups.

  • Judie Brown

    Judie Brown is president and co-founder of the Catholic American Life League in Virginia, which promotes anti-abortion legislation. Contact Paul Rondeau.

  • Allan Sawyer

    Allan Sawyer is president of the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, headquartered in Holland, Mich.

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land is president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and previously served for 25 years as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

    He is a frequent commentator on abortion and politics.

  • William Saunders

    William Saunders is senior vice president for legal affairs and senior counsel at Americans United for Life (AUL). He directs AUL’s international project and writes and speaks on a wide-range of life-related and human rights topics.

    He participated in a January 2005 panel discussion on the constitutionality of partial-birth abortion at Georgetown University Law Center.

In favor of abortion rights

  • Daniel Dombrowski

    Daniel Dombrowski is a professor of philosophy at Seattle University. He is the co-author of A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion (University of Illinois Press, 2006).

  • Jon O’Brien

    Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice, which believes that the individual conscience should be the keystone for moral decision-making on reproductive rights matters and that affordable contraception should be available to all.

  • Alexander C. Sanger

    Alexander C. Sanger, grandson of reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger, is chairman of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. He wrote Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century (Public Affairs, 2004).

  • Nancy Northup

    Nancy Northup is the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global human rights organization that uses constitutional and international law to secure women’s reproductive freedom. Contact senior press officer Kate Bernyk.

  • ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

    The ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project believes reproductive freedom is a core civil liberty and works to ensure that everyone has access to reproductive health care. Louise Melling is director. See a list of ACLU offices across the country.

  • Ilyse Hogue

    Ilyse Hogue is president of the Proactive Policy Institute of NARAL Pro-Choice America, formerly the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

  • Debra Ness

    Debra Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Washington D.C., that works to promote quality health care for women, including access to abortion. Contact communications assistant Cindy Romero.

  • Rebecca Wind

    Rebecca Wind is press contact for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization in New York and Washington, D.C., focused on sexual and reproductive health research and policy analysis.

  • Planned Parenthood Federation of America

    Planned Parenthood Federation of America fights against legislation that limits access to abortions. Contact the media office.

  • Ann Stone

    Ann Stone is the head of Republicans for Choice in Alexandria, Va., which says its aim is to remove politics from the abortion debate.

  • Medical Students for Choice

    Medical Students for Choice, based in Philadelphia, is a group formed by medical students in 1993 to make sure abortion procedures are taught in medical school.

  • Vicki Saporta

    Vicki Saporta is executive director of the National Abortion Federation in Washington, D.C., the professional association for abortion providers in North America.

  • Judy Waxman

    Judy Waxman is the vice president and director of health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center, which works to protect women’s reproductive rights. Contact Maria Patrick.

  • Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice

    The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington, D.C., pushes for more health care options for women, not fewer. It sponsors a National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality each year. Michael Mitchell is director of communications.

    The coalition filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to strike down the partial-birth abortion ban.

Medical sources


National medical associations have asserted the need and the right of the physician to choose the appropriate procedure in each case based on the risks to the mother and the condition of the fetus. The American Medical Association, which represents physicians practicing in all fields, stresses that the D&X procedure should be used only rarely.

  • American Medical Association

    The American Medical Association promotes the art and science of medicine and the betterment of public health. Contact via the form on their website.

    The AMA has said that “the term ‘partial birth abortion’ is not a medical term.” It has stated that ethical concerns have been expressed about intact dilation and extraction and that therefore the procedure should only be used when “alternative procedures pose materially greater risk to the woman. The physician must, however, retain the discretion to make that judgment, acting within standards of good medical practice and in the best interest of the patient.”

    Contact: 312-464-4430.
  • The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

    The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, formerly the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is a professional organization with over 50,000 members.

    The ACOG has said that “‘partial-birth abortion’ is a non-medical term apparently referring” to intact dilation and extraction, a “rare variant of a more common midterm abortion procedure know as dilation and evacuation.” Although an ACOG panel “could identify no circumstances” in which intact dilation and extraction would be “the only option to preserve the life and health of the mother,” in some cases it may be “the best and most appropriate procedure” to save a woman’s life and health. Only the doctor can make that determination, the ACOG has said. ACOG termed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act “inappropriate, ill advised, and dangerous.”

  • National Abortion Federation

    The National Abortion Federation (NAF) is the professional association of abortion providers in North America.

    The NAF said in a statement that the “so-called ‘partial-birth abortion’ bans threaten women’s health by outlawing safe abortion procedures.” The association has been a plaintiff and an amicus curiae in the “partial-birth” court cases.

  • American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists

    The American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists and its 2,500 members and associates oppose abortion in general. Allan Sawyer serves as president.

    The association has criticized the D&X procedure as “a medical procedure involving the purposeful convenience killing of a viable child” and argues that it is not formally recognized by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, other than as a variation of the D&E procedure.


  • Stephen Todd Chasen

    Stephen Todd Chasen is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and an associate attending obstetrician and gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He was lead author of “Dilation and evacuation at/or 20 weeks: comparison of operative techniques,” a study published in the May 2004 American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

    Contact: 212-746-3052.
  • Dr. Douglas Laube

    Dr. Douglas Laube is a professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He previously served as chair of the board of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health and president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

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